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The phone never stops for the NHS switchboard team

Wednesday, 24 April, 2019
The phone never stops for the NHS switchboard team

In the fourth of our series looking behind the curtain of your local NHS, we meet Paula Charlton, one of those staffing the Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust switchboard.

The NHS is about people. Behind the statistics and the big picture are thousands (millions) of stories; all unique, all important.

Perhaps no-one understands that better than Paula Charlton and the team staffing the Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust switchboard. On a typical day, they receive, assess and respond to thousands of calls a day from members of the public and NHS staff.

Working in shifts of four during business hours – and two outside of them – the phone literally never stops ringing; 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

Originally from Wallsend, Paula always wanted to work for the NHS – and has done so since 2003.

Since then her role has evolved – “it involves far more technology now” – but still retains the same goal: To help people get to the right place, often at some of the hardest moments of their lives.

“I remember visiting a hospital as a child and just knowing I wanted to be part of it. I wasn’t sure how but I knew then I wanted to be involved; to make life better for people. When this job opened up I jumped at the chance.

“A call can be as simple as connecting a daughter to her mum on a ward or as complex as responding to a cardiac arrest. Either way, you know you’re helping in a very practical, very real way.”

In 16 years at the trust Paula has answered around 2.3million calls; nearly all in under 50 seconds and all with a view to getting the caller where/what they need.

“We have a target to answer each call within 50 seconds and most of the time we do. Every one of us knows that the call waiting could be life and death and that, even if it’s not, it might feel that way to the person on the other end of the phone.

“So we treat them all as if they were.”

But it’s not always easy and the team regularly find themselves part of stressful or highly emotional situations.

“It can be hard – sometimes people get frustrated or angry if you can’t help fast enough and can say some very unpleasant things. It’s not nice, and on occasion can be really upsetting, but you just have to step outside for five minutes and put it away.

“You have to because the next call could be a major bleed on one of the wards and suddenly you need to dispatch specialist teams and call in consultants from home – we don’t have the luxury to let it affect us.”

Despite the difficulties, Paula wouldn’t do anything else.

“It’s a job I love. You have to be counsellor, technician, guide and coordinator all at once. I’ll be doing this until the day I retire – or they kick me out!”