NHS 111 helpline scandal comes to Milton Keynes

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A teenage call handler at an NHS 111 call centre in Milton Keynes has told the Citizen she does not trust the helpline and would not use it if one of her own loved ones was unwell.

The 18-year-old, who wished to remain anonymous, works at the NHS Direct operated 111 call centre in Linford Wood, and told this newspaper she does not feel comfortable using the computer system which attempts to diagnose patients and “worries about every call she takes”.

She claims the behaviour of some senior staff members has been “disgraceful” and says there is often a shortage of clinical experts to offer guidance and support regarding challenging calls.

“I don’t trust the system because I know what the call centres are like,” she said.

“I hear about some centres not having enough call handlers, but we have 18 year olds sitting around talking with their friends because they don’t have any calls to take. Sometimes they don’t have a call for 40 minutes.

“The noise they make sometimes makes it hard to hear your own call. We took on more staff than we needed.”

The Linford Wood 111 call centre, which employs more than 130 substantive staff, does take some non-emergency calls from the Milton Keynes area, but predominately handles those that can’t be managed by other centres.

“I was sent home early today because we had too many staff in,” added the whistleblower. “I guarantee you that 90 per cent of the staff that work there are call handlers.

“You can count the number of clinicians on one hand. They are like gold dust. They work when they want.”

A statement from NHS Direct in response to the claims said: “We encourage staff to share any feedback with us so that we can make improvements to the service and the environment they work in. We will look into the issues identified by this member of staff and take any necessary action.

“We regularly review staffing levels with commissioners against the number of calls we expect to receive. There may be times when call volumes are lower than we predicted; however our main priority is to ensure that the service is well-staffed so that patients receive a reliable and safe service.

“Our contact centres have dedicated and experienced senior staff in place to ensure proper supervision and support at all times, and our call handlers have immediate access 24 hours a day to nurses should they require clinical support.”

Most 111 calls dialled from Milton Keynes are taken at a centre in Ipswich, operated by Harmoni – the private health company which was at the centre of a Dispatches investigation broadcast on Channel 4 on Monday night.

Undercover reporters at Harmoni call centres in Bristol and Dorking revealed staff shortages, long waits for callers to be connected, and in some cases ambulances being called out unnecessarily.

But despite the Dispatches investigation, the authority tasked with supplying community health care in MK says it has no plans to review its own contract with Harmoni, which operates one third of 111 contracts in England.

A statement from the Milton Keynes Clinical Commissioning Group said: “111 calls in Milton Keynes are answered predominately in the Harmoni call centre in Ipswich with some support from the call centre in Southall.

“The staff at the centres have access to a directory of all NHS services in Milton Keynes. No calls are taken by the Harmoni call centres in Bristol or Dorking.

“Performance for the new NHS 111 service in Milton Keynes has generally been good and NHS Milton Keynes Clinical Commissioning Group is monitoring performance on a daily basis. We have no plans to review our contract with Harmoni.

“111 calls for Milton Keynes are not handled by the NHS Direct call centre in Milton Keynes as they did not win the contract to provide 111 in the area.”