Ever wondered what it takes to answer an NHS 111 call? Erin Barrett, Call Handler in Cambridgeshire & Peterborough’s NHS 111 service, tells us more about her role.

As an NHS 111 Call Handler no two days are the same. And just like Forrest Gump and his box of chocolates, you never know what you are going to deal with when you answer a call. But Erin Barrett, NHS 111 Call Handler at HUC’s Peterborough contact centre, enjoys the challenge. “Calls can be so varied,” she says, “from a stubbed toe, a dislocated shoulder or a sore throat to something quite serious including somebody having chest pains or a stroke.”

“It’s a common misconception that we just follow a script,” Erin continues. “So, when we first answer the call, we take down details of demographics – name, phone number and GP. And then we go through a list of questions based on an algorithm called NHS Pathways, our in-built tool which rules out conditions while assessing patients, to determine the next steps and action to be taken. And I think that’s why patients often think we just read something off a screen. But there’s a lot more involved,” says Erin. “The process we follow is a ‘ruling out’ system, where we follow a list of questions, to narrow down to the best possible advice. But while on a call, we also have to be reading the room constantly, keeping track of the background noises, like what could be going on there, what’s their breathing like, could there be a safeguarding concern where this person is not safe, is there something that’s perhaps not obvious to this person who may be in distress? So, taking note of all the extra information is something we are trained in thoroughly. Simultaneously, we have to be thinking of how to deal with the situation and build a rapport to the patient. Alertness is crucial,” she elaborates.

“The training process is quite rigorous, and you actually go through four weeks’ really intense training before you take a live call. You also need to pass an exam to make sure you’re where you need to be when you first take a call. And even then, there is lots of support available, including debriefers who are around if you have had a difficult call and just need some advice.”

There are many different roles in an NHS 111 contact centre, from Call Handlers – or Health Advisors – who are comprehensively trained but not clinical, to paramedics and nurses we can transfer a patient to if required all the way up to senior healthcare professionals including GPs if required.

Erin started her career at HUC as a Health Advisor five years ago, having been a pub landlady before. Since then, she has continuously progressed within the organisation but still does shifts as a Health Advisor. “I’ve been a coach, a trainer, a shift manager – there are plenty of options for career progression. “

When she first joined, Erin was sceptical about what the contact centre atmosphere would be like. But it’s nothing like what she expected. “I joined here with some pre-conceived notions that people will be loud, have their own groups etc., but I was absolutely wrong. Everyone here gets along with each other, they are friendly and helpful to one another – team spirit is the word,” Erin says. And she epitomises that herself as she was recently elected to represent her contact centre in the company’s Staff Forum.

With her solid experience as a Health Advisor, Erin shares her thoughts on the qualities others should possess who are thinking about applying. “Call handlers must be confident people, who are happy to make decisions and have good attention to detail. They should be willing to learn and have strong decision-making skills,” she says.

One call stands out to her that she is most proud of. “I remember a call from a to-be father that his partner was in labour and her mother was driving them to a hospital. I had to advise to pull over to start the assessment. While the car pulled into a Tesco’s car park and an ambulance was dispatched, I had the help of a clinical advisor, who was a midwife, with me talking me through how to help. The baby was crowning, so we asked the mother to be to lay on her left side. Everyone on the phone was in panic as she could feel the baby coming. The ambulance arrived in time and took over. It was a very challenging call dealing with a high stress situation as anything could have happened with the birth. I’m proud that I was able to help the situation and get the right help, in a short time and help prevent any complications during the birth.”

“No doubt the pay is good, but the job is amazing. The feeling that you’ve helped somebody today is very rewarding. I don’t make a big difference but little differences to many lives – very small and very often. You can’t help everybody, but I’m going to do my best,” Erin concludes.