Emergency departments involved in the pilot of the 111 phone number for non-emergency care saw four per cent fewer patients in the first five months of the scheme, researchers have found.

The report from Sheffield University on the pilot in NHS County Durham and Darlington looks at the impact of the NHS 111 service on the wider emergency care system.

Calls to the non-emergency free phone number are triaged using NHS Pathways software linked to a directory of local services.

Researchers found a 2,553 drop in attendances at the area’s two accident and emergency departments from August to December 2010 compared with the same period the previous year, against a national increase of two per cent.

Attendances at urgent care centres and calls to GP out of hours services also fell, by four per cent.

The number of ambulances dispatched increased slightly. However, a spokeswoman for North East Ambulance Service told HSJ NHS 111 had effectively “capped” the number of ambulances sent out from rising further in the pilot area.

Health minister Earl Howe said the results were encouraging and he hoped the number would “take the pressure off the 999 emergency service and local A&E departments”.