YOUNG people with conditions such as autism and ADHD could be assessed online to get them the help they need as soon as possible.

A trial run in the Scottish Highlands and Finland will use the new approach to see if it leads to healthier, happier children than the current system.

Experts say that it is widely acknowledged that the need for child and adolescent psychiatry services is greater than can be provided

The main problems are insufficient numbers of psychiatrists and specialists; long waiting times; limited capacity among primary care services and a heavy travel burden for both patients and their families and for outpatient specialists.

Rachel Mitchell, 17, of Inverness, who suffers from panic attacks, said early access to services is critical.

She said: "It's a great idea. I was on the waiting list for a number of months.and then eventually I was told I would see someone.

"If you are waiting then it is pretty difficult and it is dark."

"I had a panic attack in the middle of the city hospital."

GPs say they don't have the time or training to accurately diagnose children, and so potentially refer them to inappropriate support services.

Experts say the process of making a successful referral for a child to the appropriate service can be drawn out and stressful and can be "particularly damaging" for children when their condition requires early treatment.

The new trial will see parents of children, their teachers and - if he or she is at least 11 years old - the child, take secure, structured computer psychiatric interviews specially designed to build up a detailed psychiatric history and give an accurate diagnosis.

The online information will be assessed by a psychiatrist and a recommendation made about the right service for the child or young person.

It is hoped that the new Development and Well-being Assessment (DAWBA) will result in children or young people being referred to the most appropriate services more quickly and with less stress.

Test of the system show DAWBA's diagnosis success rate to be around 80 to 90 per cent.

The project is a collaboration with partners in Finland, Sweden and Norway.

During the trial, which will take place in the NHS Highland region, half the patients will receive the DAWBA system and half will receive the current treatment.

After meeting with their GP, a parent will be given a set of codes to log in to the secure computerised system where they will answer a series of interview questions.

If the child is under five years old, the parent alone would be interviewed. If the child is over five, both the parent and the child's teacher would be interviewed.

If the patient is at least 11 years old the parent, teacher and child would be interviewed.

Once the interviews are completed the resulting information is passed to a child psychologist who looks at a computerised summary of the data and makes a diagnostic assessment.

Professor Philip Wilson, of Aberdeen University's Centre for Rural Health, said: "This is an important trial to test a new service which could ultimately lead to a slicker, more thorough and effective system for psychiatric referral for children and young people.

"The current system is inefficient at best and often results in families being sent from pillar to post due to inaccurate or non-comprehensive diagnosis."

Prof Wilson added: "It is our hope that the new system will contribute to improved and more equal access to timely outpatient psychiatry services, specialist evaluation and treatment according to best practice, improved capacity in primary care and more rational use of specialist services."