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How to... maintain good telephone skills

As with any form of communication, skilful use of the telephone involves tailoring your message to suit the recipient. Natural communicators can do this instinctively; those who are less gifted need to learn and practise.

1) Make sure your telephone system is up to the task of handling multiple calls quickly. Do not keep callers waiting. Do not carry an irritating and repetitive message. Do not leave them in complete silence for long stretches. Callers are usually stressed – they do not need any additional aggravation. Soothing music may help.

2) Make sure you have immediate access to medical records. You need to know as much about the medical and social background of the caller as possible if you are to advise them effectively.

3) Concentrate on the phone call. Trying to do other things at the same time is not a good idea. It's incredibly irritating for the caller if they sense you don't have your mind on the job.

4) Make use of triage. Assess the urgency of the call and thus the priority and speed with which it needs to be handled. You could check how calls are handled by NHS Direct or your local out-of-hours provider.

5) Have patience. Most callers are not trying to waste your time. Empathise with them.

6) Be pleasant but professional in tone. Do not be emotional, judgmental or ingratiating.

7) Provide something tangible, such as an appointment, a prescription or an advice sheet.

8) Summarise the conversation at the end. Remember that the essence of good telephone communication is to do unto others as you would have done unto you. Keep at the back of your mind the last time YOU phoned a call centre with an inquiry!

Dr Jim Sherifi is a GP in Sudbury, Suffolk

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