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Life on the line: Inside Addenbrooke's Hospital's contact centre

By Gemma Gardner

Addenbrookes Hospital - contact centre, Regina Brown . Picture: Keith Heppell
Addenbrookes Hospital - contact centre, Regina Brown . Picture: Keith Heppell

Taking 1.2 million calls a year, the contact centre at Addenbrooke's is one busy place - and it's fundamental to the smooth running of the hospital.

Addenbrooke's Hospital contact centre

45 seconds - average length of call

300-400 - number of calls per agent per shift

1.2million - calls taken by contact centre in a year

40 - number of agents in contact centre

8,000 - hospital trust staff that rely on their work

When a trauma patient is rushed to the accident and emergency department at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, a medical team is prepped and waiting. If someone collapses anywhere on the hospital site, doctors are there in seconds.

But how do they get there?

“That’s us,” said Regina Brown. “When the phone rings in A&E, staff call us on the emergency line and get on with their jobs.

“We then send a message to the crash teams – which include doctors, nurses, resus team, porters – and they’ll go and attend that emergency. They literally drop everything and they’re off.”

Addenbrookes Hospital - contact centre, from left Regina Brown, call centre manager Leah Marsh and Ben Dunling . Picture: Keith Heppell
Addenbrookes Hospital - contact centre, from left Regina Brown, call centre manager Leah Marsh and Ben Dunling . Picture: Keith Heppell

Hungarian-born Regina has been a contact centre agent for Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Trust for 10 years. She is one of the voices callers hear when they contact the trust from all over the world on everything from parking to appointments.

But the centre is much more than a switchboard service, with staff also logging maintenance calls, booking on emergency bloods, helping relatives to find information on their loved ones and co-ordinating the bleep devices used by clinicians as well as dealing with emergencies in Addenbrooke’s and the Rosie, and fire incidents.

And if that wasn’t enough, they also provide technical support for the paging network and send damaged equipment away for repair.

Regina, a mum, found her way into the centre via Sainsbury’s and a stint working on the hospital’s main reception.

Addenbrookes Hospital - contact centre, call centre manager Leah Marsh . Picture: Keith Heppell
Addenbrookes Hospital - contact centre, call centre manager Leah Marsh . Picture: Keith Heppell

“I love customer service. I love helping, I love talking and I love talking to people.

“It’s really rewarding. You go home and know you’ve helped and I love helping. If you can help, it’s great and you go home happy, but if you can’t then it hits you.”

Up to 16 weeks of training across each of the call areas are provided to new recruits to equip them for the fast-paced environment, with experienced agents offering support.

“If it’s a call where someone is suicidal you have to deal with it completely differently than an elderly woman who can’t hear you very well,” she said.

“It’s not a switchboard. It’s much more than that. You have to be able to deal with pressure. It’s very calm here – until there’s an emergency and then we jump into action,” Regina said.

“I’m very empathetic – I cry with a patient if they cry. I don’t get frustrated. You have to put yourself in their shoes and try to help them. I really want to help people and it makes me feel sad when I can’t.”

The centre employs 40 agents who work a rota across three shift patterns: day, evening and night.

Former Linton Village College student Ben Dunling is one of the youngest members of the team. At 18, he joined the trust as an apprentice 18 months ago. After completing his apprenticeship and a level two qualification in customer service, Ben decided to stay.

“I enjoy taking all the calls as each one is unique and comes with its own challenges – you can get someone who is very upset or they can be really talkative,” he said.

But the job has given something else to Ben: a newly-discovered confidence which he believes comes from dealing with some of the most difficult calls.

“Some of the most difficult calls we deal with are relatives calling in to the find the location of their relative. We’re able to search this information but sometimes, because of patient confidentiality, we can’t give the information out.

“And it’s very rare that it happens, but sometimes you get a person who gets angry because you can’t give that information out. But you just have to stick to what you know.

“It’s very difficult, especially when I first started. I’ve never felt comfortable socialising with people. I’ve always stuck to people I’ve met before. But now, I’ve got more confidence and it’s helped to build that. It’s all because of those calls because it’s helped me to develop my communication skills.”

But there’s still more to learn for Ben, who said that each day presents staff with new challenges.

“Tomorrow I’ll be even better than I was today because I would have learned something new,” he smiled.

Calls to the centre last, on average, 45 seconds, with each agent taking between 300 and 400 calls per shift. In the course of 12 months, the 24-hour contact centre receives 1.2 million calls. It also runs the receptions in the main hospital and at the Addenbrooke’s Charitable Trust.

It is crucial to the running of the trust and its near 8,000 staff, so a savvy knowledge of the organisation is essential.

“Anyone could call for anything really,” said contact centre manager Leah Marsh. “We do get some callers who are distressed or upset.

“We also have a cardiac arrest line, so if someone was to collapse or have a cardiac arrest on site, we get called.

“It’s a huge responsibility. We have to get it absolutely spot on. It’s one of the most important parts of our service. All of the agents remain calm and collected.”

Leah joined the trust 10 years ago and worked in the linen room before training as a call agent and working her way up the ladder from deputy shift leader to shift leader, deputy manager and the centre manager – a post she took up in January.

“It’s definitely different. For agents, they could just receive any type of call and not any one day is the same. If we weren’t here it would be very different. We support the trust. They are very knowledgeable and they have to learn a lot, but they handle every call really well.”


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