Big increase in NHS Direct Wales online users

By Hywel Griffith
BBC Wales Health correspondent


Numbers using the internet to look after their health have nearly doubled in the last three years, says NHS Direct Wales.

The advice service reports a huge rise in patients on its website, and is on course to reach 624,000 users a year by next April.

More doctors are also making use of the internet to inform patients.

But concern remains about older people being able to access information online.

The shift in patient behaviour may help alleviate pressure on hospitals and GP surgeries, according to Leanne Hawker, who helps manage the NHS Direct Wales site.

"For minor illnesses, it can help people think I don't need to trouble my doctor, I don't need help at this stage, I know what I need to do."

"It prevents people using services unnecessarily."

The site has seen a huge growth in users since being re-designed in 2007, with events such as the outbreak of swine flu in 2009 bringing a new wave of users.

"It's around helping people understand minor ailments," says Ms Hawker.

"They learn when to use services appropriately, when is the best time for them to seek intervention."

But concern remains over how many older people in Wales are able to use the internet, and understand where to find trustworthy information.

Pensioner Doris Evans, from Pwll Trap in Carmarthenshire, has been attending computer classes run by the charity Age Cymru.

She says she has used the internet to research different diagnoses but there can be too much information online.

"Knowing what website to go to baffles me sometimes," said Mrs Evans.

'Little dubious'

"When my husband had a carotid artery and he was treated for that, it made me understand it better."

But not everyone in the class is so confident.

Image caption, NHS Direct Wales is run by the Wales Ambulance Service and costs £9m a year to run

"I would not be happy to gain health knowledge from a machine," says David Watkins from Nantgaredig, Carmarthenshire.

"I'd rather go face to face and see my doctor - if I had any queries then I'd get an answer, hopefully!"

Doctors themselves are increasingly using the internet to research illnesses and communicate with each other on social networking sites, according to BMA Wales.

Chairman Dr Andrew Dearden says he was recently able to confirm one of his patients was suffering exploding head syndrome, a condition which she had found online.

"When she told me initially I must say was a little dubious, because of the name," said Dr Dearden.

"We took her information and went on to the internet and actually found that it was a condition described in the early 1990s, and published in some reputable journals.

"What was helpful was that it told us it was time limited and would eventually go on its own - that helped reassure her and me."

NHS Direct Wales costs £9m and in 2008/09 the service received more than 340,000 calls and 450,000 visits to its website.

It is designed to take pressure off of frontline NHS staff.

For more information to help you get online call the free BBC First Click advice line on 08000 150950

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