The government is pushing the need for a greater role for 'selfcare', empowering patients to manage more minor and chronic conditions.

Influential think-tank the Institute for Public Policy Research launches its report The Future Patient this week, with health secretary Alan Milburn expected to endorse its message of ensuring people are provided with enough information to take more control over their healthcare.

In one of her first public engagements since taking office, junior health minister Hazel Blears told a joint NHS, Doctor Patient Partnership and Proprietary Association of Great Britain conference last week that self-care was about empowering patients, and not about costcutting.

Ms Blears said: 'It has been estimated that self-care accounts for 80-90 per cent of all healthcare.

Self-care is not about picking up where the NHS hasn't been able to provide services. '

The Department of Health views self-care as encompassing a broad range of conditions, from colds to chronic illnesses, which account for a large amount of the primary care workload. 'Critics will suggest we are prioritising self-care because the NHS can't cope. That is not the case. This is not about a cheap option, ' Ms Blears said.

The emphasis on self-care will involve a range of new ways of delivering information, including an NHS health encyclopaedia and increasing use of interactive services.

Ms Blears outlined plans for a 'very radical digital interactive service' that people would be able to access through their televisions.

She also stressed the importance of Care Direct, a single national number to complement the service NHS Direct provides by offering information about topics such as housing and social security benefits.

Care Direct is being piloted in the autumn in six local authorities in south west England before being rolled out through the rest of the country from 2003.

Ms Blears was clear that there had to be room to experiment with different models of providing information and care. She said: 'We have to have room to fail, because, if we do not, we will not have room to explore the cutting edge of what we want to do. '

Royal College of General Practitioners chair Professor Mike Pringle welcomed Ms Blears' vision of healthcare as 'startlingly reassuring', and said that to improve patients' experiences of the NHS 'we must put at the centre of that, self-care as the kernel'.

Nurse Lance Gardner, who runs a personal medical services pilot in Ms Blears' constituency and is on the Modernisation Agency's access taskforce, welcomed the emphasis on selfcare and the wider use of technology. He said his own practice had been giving out blood-pressure machines to patients to help them to monitor problems at home.