News : NHS 24 Helpline Criticised Over Handling of Phone Call
London, UK, Oct 22, 2015 -- An NHS helpline has been criticised over its handling of a phone call from a suicidal mum who killed herself hours after begging to be admitted in hospital.
Jane Taylor told staff at the NHS 24 out-of-hours service she had taken an overdose a few days earlier and could try to harm herself again.
But instead of calling an ambulance, NHS 24 - Scotland's national helpline - said they would phone her back in three hours.
By the time they rang again, Jane had turned off her phone.
A nurse left a voicemail message asking her to call back if she was still in distress, but added: "Meantime, this call is now closed."
Jane, who had battled depression and alcohol problems, took a fatal overdose next day – her 62nd birthday.
Her daughter Beth says the system failed her mother and the Scottish public services ombudsman, Jim Martin, has now found in her favour, reports the Daily Record .
His report tells NHS 24 to change the way they talk to distressed patients – and to treat mental illness as seriously as physical problems.
NHS 24 bosses apologised to Beth, but she said her mum would still be here if the service had done its job properly.
"Mum’s death could have been avoided," she said yesterday.
"It makes me question if NHS 24 is fit for purpose.
"Going by the recordings of the calls, it’s a glorified call centre which does not have the capacity or compassionate staff to support people with mental health conditions."
Beth had called NHS 24 on March 16 last year asking for the service to contact her mother.
The call handler she spoke to, who agreed the service would contact Jane, classed the call as "serious and urgent".
NHS 24 then contacted Jane directly and she was described as "extremely distressed" and she begged to be taken away under mental health legislation.
But when no nurse was available to advise, the call was downgraded and a "three hour callback" was arranged for Jane.
Beth, 40, has listened to the tapes of the calls after obtaining them through a freedom of information request.
She said: "I was deeply shocked to learn that the call handler asked my mum if she was planning to hurt herself, and she said ‘maybe’ and sounded very distressed and was crying.
"The call handler explained to the nurse that mum was suicidal. In spite of knowing this, she put a suicidal woman on a three-hour callback.
"I’m shocked that a senior nurse, who is supposed to be caring, compassionate and experienced, would do that. I will never be able to come to terms with that.
"I wonder how that nurse feels now, knowing that my mum killed herself next morning – on her birthday. I hope she has sleepless nights, like I have.
"Mum called me when she was dying. That voicemail was horrendous to listen to. I think of her every day."
While Jane waited for the call back NHS 24 also arranged for her to speak to an adviser from mental health charity Breathing Space, but Beth said: "He was so out of his depth.
"He had received Applied Suicide Intervention Skills training and he never used any of them. Then he ended the call when mum was still so distressed."
Martin upheld Beth’s complaints about NHS 24 and Breathing Space, and wrote in his report: "This significant case has raised concerns about how effectively mental health crises are managed."
He said NHS 24’s "initial call handling" was "geared towards physical problems and gathering personal information".
But he had been advised that this approach to people with mental health problems didn’t work and could make their symptoms worse.
Martin added: "More needs to be done to ensure that mental health is not treated with any less urgency than physical health."
In all, he made 19 recommendations, including changes to the way NHS 24 assesses the seriousness of mental health problems.
He called for Breathing Space staff to be retrained and advised on when to use their suicide prevention training.
NHS 24 director of nursing and care Sheena Wright said they had accepted all Martin’s recommendations and taken action, and would continue to make sure all the changes were "fully embedded".
She added: "We again offer our sincerest apologies to Ms Taylor’s family for the care she received. It was not of the standard she should have expected from NHS 24."
The minister responsible for mental health, Jamie Hepburn, said his thoughts were with Jane’s family.
He added: "It is absolutely right that NHS 24 has apologised unreservedly and will act on the recommendations as a matter of urgency.
Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent
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Published: Monday, October 26, 2015