One person in five who calls their GP outside normal hours will have NHS Direct as their first point of contact by next April, the government has announced.
A total of 34 'exemplar' schemes will come into operation, as progress is made towards having out-of-hours services fully integrated with NHS Direct by 2004.
The schemes, covering nearly 10 million people in England, will go live in two waves, starting in November this year, and March next year.
The decision to integrate NHS Direct fully with out-of-hours GP services had met some resistance from GPs, but the review of outof-hours services published last autumn favoured the model of having a single point of contact using nurse triage.
Health minister John Hutton said one pilot at Nottinghamshire Emergency Medical Services had reduced the number of patients having to see GPs by 30 per cent, with no compromise of patient care.
'Medical needs are dealt with efficiently and effectively, making better use of resources and skills, while at the same time minimising unnecessary call-outs for GPs.'
The minister said more than 100 out-of-hours services had applied to participate in the exemplar schemes.