How NHS 111 can help you – a call handler gives us the inside view

We speak to NHS workers to discover exactly how calling 111 in times of medical need can benefit everyone

Dr Seun Bakare, Northwest London Urgent Care GP says: ‘The winter months can be challenging for the NHS, especially for urgent care services. It’s important for us to drive understanding of the role and capabilities of NHS 111 and to increase the number of people calling 111 when they have an urgent, but non-life-threatening medical need so that they can be directed to the most appropriate service.’

NHS 111 call handler, Ahreni Athessan explains how NHS 111 works and how her job has helped her realise her passion for helping others… 

What is NHS 111?

Ahreni: NHS 111 is much more than a helpline – if you’re worried about an urgent medical concern, you can call 111 to speak to fully trained advisors available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, who can put you straight through to relevant healthcare professionals, including nurses, emergency dentists, or GPs depending on the situation.


What happens when you receive a call?

Ahreni: We ask a series of questions to help us assess the condition of the caller or the individual they are calling on behalf of to ensure they are directed to the most appropriate healthcare professional or service.

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The questions we ask also help us identify how urgent the call is and then we advise on the best course of action.

Ahreni Athessan, NHS 111 call handler


What training do you undergo to become an adviser?

Ahreni: We undergo five weeks of intense training which includes class room training, written tests as well as on the job training that involves listening in to calls to understand the process followed by a week of taking calls with the support of a coach.

We don’t get signed off to take calls on our own until we have passed all the safety checks – the safety of your call is key for all call handlers, especially new starters. 

What medical support do you receive?

Ahreni: There are a lot of healthcare professionals present whilst we’re taking calls so if I have any concerns I can alert a healthcare professional to come and help me with the call. Over time you also get used to identifying potential situations of concern and it is reassuring for me to know that help is always at hand and that I can ask for a second opinion from healthcare professionals.

What is the role of the call handler?

Ahreni: Other than take calls and advise on the best course of action, we can also arrange face-to-face appointments, and if you are assessed as needing an ambulance, we can organise one to be sent directly.

Whatever the need is, we will ensure that you get the right care, from the right person, as quickly as possible.

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What skills do you need to be a call handler?

Ahreni: Empathy is key, appreciating how people may be feeling when they have a medical concern. Communication is also important – the ability to listen, analyse and provide the correct information. Working over the phone requires a completely different skill to dealing with people face-to-face, we need to be able to pick up on any concerns and be alert for any warning signs, for example if someone is suicidal, having a stroke or has mental health issues.

We are also trained to direct a third party to give Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) over the phone which requires good communication skills.

Can you tell me about the NHS 111 confidential interpreter service?

Ahreni: The interpreter service is fantastic, sometimes for a call handler it can be challenging getting to the bottom of the problem if the caller is not fluent in English. We can access a language line to help interpret the caller so it becomes a three-way call. The interpreter service is available in many languages. Callers simply mention the language they wish to use when the NHS 111 adviser answers the call.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

Ahreni: I enjoy being able to help people on a daily basis and get them the right outcome, I’ve always wanted to work in healthcare but didn’t want to be so hands on so this role is perfect for me. I also love the variety of my job, every day is different, every call is different, every patient is different.

I think the NHS 111 is a much-needed service and more people need to be aware of it so, if you think you need urgent non-life-threatening medical help, call NHS 111.

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