Call handlers at the Black Country base of the controversial NHS 111 service were told to finish calls within 550 seconds or risk being sent on an improvement course, it has emerged.
It has been claimed that staff taking calls at the Brierley Hill centre at Navigation Point were told to adhere to ‘average handling times’ during calls and that they were also given ‘help’ placards to hold up if they sought aid from clinical advisers. Handlers who consistently failed to meet call times were told they may have to receive extra training to improve, it has been said.
But NHS Direct – the company which runs the non-emergency phone line in the West Midlands but has said it wants to pull out of the contract – has insisted that calls weren’t ‘compromised in favour of meeting targets’.
Responding to the claims a spokeswoman for NHS Direct admitted call handlers had been encouraged to finish calls within 550 seconds, just over nine minutes.
But she insisted: “The quality of our service is of utmost importance and we would never compromise this in favour of meeting targets.
“The service has targets with regard to average handling times to ensure that we provide a consistent service to all our patients; however we understand that some calls may take longer and that is completely acceptable.
“If a call handler is consistently failing to meet targets for a prolonged period we may provide additional support and training to help them to improve their performance.”
She added: “Call handlers have immediate access 24 hours a day to nurses should they require clinical support.
“We have clinical floor walkers on site who are there to support call handlers. Placards are used to ensure that clinical staff know when call handlers require help, and can get to them quickly.
“Call handlers can send an ambulance without clinical input, however there are occasions when call handlers require additional clinical support and they have 24-hour access to this.”
NHS Direct announced in July it would be seeking to end its contract to run the NHS 111 service, with bosses saying it did not have ‘sufficient capacity’ to handle all the calls and that the contracts were too expensive.
The service is run by different organisations in different parts of the country, with private companies, local ambulance services and NHS Direct all taking on contracts last year.
It has been criticised nationally by doctors and MPs for making patients wait hours for a call back, not having enough clinical staff manning phone lines, and depending on computer algorithms that often directed people to A&E and GP services unnecessarily.