NHS Advice ‘Failing The Public’

The NHS in Scotland is failing to provide the right advice to members of the public who contact it for information, according to the most comprehensive study of patient service carried out since devolution.

Only half of calls made to NHS boards result in callers’ needs being met, according to new independent research by the Scottish Consumer Council (SCC). The SCC carried out a “mystery shopping” exercise on more than 500 occasions where researchers acted as members of the public and contacted local NHS boards, seeking advice and information. It did not include calls to the controversial NHS 24 helpline.

It found that for many people contacting the NHS “is highly problematic, taking them down blind alleys, leading to encounters with unhelpful staff or leaving them high and dry with an answering machine”.

The mystery shoppers posed the same questions to each of Scotland’s 12 NHS boards, during October 2006. Scenarios ranged from how to find an NHS dentist to how soon treatment for breast cancer should begin.

Overall, more than one-third of calls were handled “poorly” or “very poorly”, largely because of the failure of staff to answer the query at the first time of asking.

Staff were often flummoxed by callers asking simple questions such as: “How do I get a free eye test?”, and “How do I make a complaint about a local clinic?”. When callers were transferred, a quarter were routed to the wrong person.

Callers with foreign accents received particularly poor service. When they asked for information about their nearest A&E, staff rarely attempted to understand them. In many cases the response was “rude, brash or unhelpful”, the survey found.

The findings were described as “disturbing” by Liz Macdonald, policy manager for health and social care with the Scottish Consumer Council. She said: “The NHS needs to get this sorted out. Only half the calls resulted in people feeling they had had their needs met. Too many calls were being wrongly transferred and sometimes ended on voicemails which is probably the most frustrating thing if you are looking for some information.”

When researchers tried sending questions by e-mail or through web-forms, they received a similarly poor response. In all, 37% of e-mail queries were not responded to at all. These include simple queries such as “How do I register with a GP?” or “How do I become a blood donor?”

Ms Macdonald said: “We did not get any evidence of customer care standards such as all e-mails should be answered within five days’. What we found was boards didn’t appear to have policies or strategies in place covering this aspect of the way they were providing a service.”

The SCC is today publishing a report, Call for Improvement, which sets out a series of recommendations for improving the situation. It urges NHS boards to have clear standards on how quickly calls and e-mails will be answered and how call transfers are carried out.

Boards should develop policies and strategies on how to handle inquiries from the public, and have clear contact information in phone books, websites and other publicity, says the report. They should also ensure staff responsible for answering calls are properly trained.

Douglas Sinclair, chair of the SCC, said: “It is time for customer care in the broadest sense to be taken more seriously by NHS bodies in Scotland.We hope this report will provoke NHS boards into taking action to improve the experience of the public.”

Responding to the SCC report, a Scottish Executive spokeswoman said: “We expect NHS boards to provide the right advice and information. They have been informed of the report’s draft findings and have been asked to take all necessary action to address the issues raised as a matter of urgency.”