When Standards and Indicators’ Paula O’Brien volunteered to help support the training of new call handlers for NHS24, she had no idea she’d end up with a sore throat…and an alter ego!
“Can I speak to John?” the voice asked.
I started to feel a bit panicky.
“He’s not feeling well,” I said, fidgeting with the phone.
“If you could let me speak to him, please. We just need to ask him a few things,” said the person at the other end.
I counted to 10 in my head. I’m still not sure why I did what I did next, looking back.
“It’s John here,” I said, putting on a much deeper voice.
The voice at the other end of the phone asked me a few more questions. I kept on for a bit, being ‘John’. Then I thought, ‘What am I doing?’
After a while, I went back to my normal voice.
What did I get out of it? A sore throat. What did the voice, the person at the other end of the phone get out of it? Well, apart from amusement at my efforts pretending to be John, hopefully in some small way I’ve helped them prepare to answer one of the many calls that NHS24 will be receiving during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Volunteering to help support the training of new call handlers for NHS24, by posing as a patient with real symptoms for test calls, is a world away from my job working as an admin officer for the Standards and Indicators team in Healthcare Improvement Scotland. But in a previous life I worked in a call centre environment. As my partner, Alan, is a care home nurse and my sister, Karen, a mental health nurse, I also felt I wanted to do something to help, no matter how small or big.
“As my partner, Alan, is a care home nurse and my sister, Karen, a mental health nurse, I also felt I wanted to do something to help, no matter how small or big.”
The volume of calls NHS24 is receiving has risen quite significantly due to COVID–19, and they’ve had to quickly recruit around 300 new call handlers. By volunteering to help support the training of these new call handlers, I’ve been able to help NHS24 in two ways. Firstly, having people like me involved means they don’t have to take experienced call handlers from the ‘live’ environment to train new staff. Secondly, by taking on the role of a patient caller, I’m helping to support the training of those additional staff.
Training for the role of a patient caller took place through a conference call with our contact at NHS24, someone that others in Healthcare Improvement Scotland will be familiar with – our former Equality and Diversity Advisor, Mario Medina. Mario ran through the processes and gave us the opportunity to ask any questions to help us prepare for our new roles as patient callers. We always have a point of contact, like Mario, to refer to if we’re unsure of anything. These contacts also give feedback via email about how much our help is appreciated and how well we are doing regarding the support training of new staff.
Being a patient caller in the training programme basically involves using scripted scenarios and demographics. There’s usually two demographics (patient details such as name and address) and four scenarios, two of which have an “end point” where the call handler advises on care at home, and two of which are ILTs, Immediate Life Threats requiring ambulance dispatch. My role is not to score, rate or make comments on how the trainee has done, it’s to follow the scenario to the end. During each call I make, I hope that the trainee call handler gets it right and I root for them each time. It sounds strange, but you can actually feel a smile through the phone – I could just tell the trainee who had to listen to me pretending to be ‘John’ was amused. On another call, an ILT one, the trainee asked, “How do you get into the house?”, needing to know so they could direct the ambulance crew when they got there. I misheard this as “How did you get into the house?”, to which I replied quite indignantly “Through the front door! I live here with my mum!” Only when the trainee repeated the question did I realise my mistake, and again a smile was shared across the phone.
I normally get up to three shifts a week, half a day for each shift – these can be morning, afternoon or evening. I select the most suitable shifts dependent on other workloads and home life and I then get provided with a rota and patient details for those shifts. I’ve been supplied with a work mobile for the training, as we have to continually call the training centre during our shift, alternating scenarios as we go. My preference has been to do either morning or afternoon shifts – Alan works nightshift in a care home. Luckily he is a deep sleeper so up to now my work as a trainer has not encroached on our routine and seems to fit in with it nicely.
“Carrying out this work not only helps NHS24 in a small way but is also keeps me busy and keeps my mind off worrying about my loved ones. I speak to both Alan and my sister regularly about their experiences of working during this pandemic. Volunteering in this way helps benefit my mental wellbeing in a positive way, and I’m glad of the opportunity to help during this difficult time.”
I do hope – and certainly feel – that I am making a difference by assisting with the training of new call handlers. Despite the ‘John’ incident, I try not to get emotionally attached to my patient character as I’m focussed on how the trainee must be feeling and how anxious some of them must be. I concentrate on ensuring I give them all the information they need to seek clinical advice from a colleague and complete the call in the correct way.
Carrying out this work not only helps NHS24 in a small way but is also keeps me busy and keeps my mind off worrying about my loved ones. I speak to both Alan and my sister regularly about their experiences of working during this pandemic. Volunteering in this way helps benefit my mental wellbeing in a positive way, and I’m glad of the opportunity to help during this difficult time. As part of a team of people from across Healthcare Improvement Scotland that have stepped up and volunteered to help support the training of call handlers, and as part of our wider team of colleagues across the organisation who are all helping fight this virus in their own way, I’d like to say thank you – you all make me really proud!
Paula O’Brien is a member of the Standards and Indicators team in Healthcare Improvement Scotland.
Visit the Healthcare Improvement Scotland website for information on our response to COVID-19.