Teenagers are being targeted to handle NHS 111 calls in a bid to tackle the huge demand for the service.
South East Coast Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust (SECAS), which runs the service in Kent, has advertised in higher education colleges and universities in order to recruit an extra 200 staff over the last few month to cope with unexpected demand.
This is the latest controversy to hit the troubled helpline, following severe problems with the rollout in some regions that led to out-of-hours providers having to take back control of triaging, a number of serious untoward incidents in its first months and one provider having to pull out of two contracts. A Pulse survey also revealed that only 8% of doctors think the triage process is safe.
Geraint Davies, SECAS’s director of commercial services, admitted to Medway Council’s health scrutiny committee last month that ‘there were insufficient people in the room to pick up the phone’ when the new phone hotline went live in March.
He told the committee: ‘Unfortunately the plans we had didn’t meet the actual demand being placed on the service when we went live, which led to pressure on the system and led to the service not providing what it was supposed to, to the public. We accept that.’
In an attempt to try and tackle the ongoing delays and abandoned calls the trust has had to resort to advertising for teenagers to answer calls from people seeking medical advice.
Theresa Murray, a Labour councillor who sits on the committee, told Pulse that the trust had advertised to students at MidKent College, where she works, to apply for jobs as call handlers on the NHS 111 service.
She said she was concerned that the ten week training programme, which the new recruits are required to complete before answering calls, was inadequate.
‘I regard people with only 10 weeks’ training as newly-trained,’ she said. ‘These are young people who definitely deserve a chance but who would have a much longer journey to travel before they could be a good operator.’
A spokesman for the trust said: ‘We advertised the jobs nationally on NHS Jobs and we also carried out targeted recruitment because a lot of the posts were part-time or flexible hours, however we were not recruiting from one specific demographic.’
Please note – this article was amended at 11:30 on 12 July 2013