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Helpline nursing: important, highly skilled and surprisingly satisfying

Nurses who work on health helplines have finely-honed communication skills and an encyclopaedic knowledge of their specialism. A new framework is being developed to set out the competences needed for this demanding role.
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Nurses who work on health helplines have finely-honed communication skills and an encyclopaedic knowledge of their specialism. A new framework is being developed to set out the competences needed for this demanding role

Viewed by some as a backwater, only attracting those in the twilight of their careers, the nurses role on specialist health helplines is often misunderstood and undervalued.

A new framework, written by senior staff at charities who employ information nurses, is set to challenge these unwarranted perceptions. It dignifies what were doing, says Cancer Research UK head information nurse Martin Ledwick, who manages a team of eight. And it gives nurses an idea of what we expect from them.

Mr Ledwick meets regularly with senior nursing colleagues at Macmillan Cancer Support, the National Osteoporosis Society

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Nurses who work on health helplines have finely-honed communication skills and an encyclopaedic knowledge of their specialism. A new framework is being developed to set out the competences needed for this demanding role


Good communication is at the heart of being a health helpline nurse. Picture: Harrison Photography

Viewed by some as a backwater, only attracting those in the twilight of their careers, the nurse’s role on specialist health helplines is often misunderstood and undervalued. 

A new framework, written by senior staff at charities who employ information nurses, is set to challenge these unwarranted perceptions. ‘It dignifies what we’re doing,’ says Cancer Research UK head information nurse Martin Ledwick, who manages a team of eight. ‘And it gives nurses an idea of what we expect from them.’

Mr Ledwick meets regularly with senior nursing colleagues at Macmillan Cancer Support, the National Osteoporosis Society and Prostate Cancer UK. ‘We realised that our role was not understood well, especially the level of expertise we expect, with the skills, experience and competences nurses need,’ he says. ‘This is a proper job, with a specific skill set.’

The framework will include the background and context of information and support service nursing and underlying principles and practice standards. The hope is that in the future it may form the basis of an educational programme for a growing specialism. 

Effective communication 

Being a good communicator is at the heart of information nursing, Mr Ledwick says, as well as the opportunity to fully develop skills. ‘Nurses are dealing with a wide range of understanding,’ he says. ‘They are used to talking and explaining difficult concepts in plain English. In the NHS, nurses have limited time to spend talking to their patients, but that’s all we do. That’s what we’re about and we learn to do it very effectively.’

Nurses who decide to return to clinical roles bring these enhanced communication skills with them, often to great effect, Mr Ledwick says. When one of his former colleagues returned to work in palliative care, she found that staff actively sought her help when they faced emotionally-challenging conversations with patients and loved ones.

‘She had spent a couple of years where most of her work involved having difficult conversations with people,’ he says. ‘It formed so much of her day-to-day job that they were not a problem for her.’

Potential employers may also underestimate the skills nurses acquire when working in information services. ‘When nurses apply at the NHS and are shortlisted, often those interviewing them don’t understand they have developed encyclopaedic knowledge of their subject,’ says Mr Ledwick. 

‘It comes as a real surprise that they have nurses who may not have done clinical care for a few years, but whose knowledge is off the scale. When you’re on the wards, you may be focused on one aspect of a disease and have good knowledge of it, but what’s different for us is that we have to be able to answer a whole range of queries.’ 

Having worked in this sector for the past 20 years, Mr Ledwick admits that initially he thought he would miss hands-on patient care. ‘But the interactions over the phone can be so intense that I feel I’ve had a connection with a patient,’ he says.

Speak freely

‘I’m asked questions that I never would have been asked on the wards. The anonymity frees people up, and a whole level of embarrassment goes out of the equation. It’s far more satisfying than I’d ever imagined.’

Although she only joined Prostate Cancer UK’s team of 11 specialist nurses in September last year, Emma Craske’s experience is similar. ‘Before I started, I expected the calls to be superficial, but that’s not the case at all. Callers find the anonymity enables them to be frank about their concerns and anxieties,’ says Ms Craske, who works part-time, three days a week. ‘When people are with someone they love, they can’t always be open because they’re trying to stay strong for them, but with us, they have the freedom to ask questions and express emotion.’

Face-to-face contact with patients was something she also thought she would miss. ‘But the phone calls are so deeply personal and emotional that I have a sense of meeting a real need for people,’ she says.

Ms Craske has worked in various cancer nursing roles over the past 25 years, always within the NHS. Looking for a new challenge, she had good experiences with study days and online learning through Prostate Cancer UK. ‘Patients had always said how useful they’d found it too,’ she says.

After joining, she had a 12-week induction. ‘I think that’s indicative of the complexity of the role,’ says Ms Craske. ‘It’s been the steepest learning curve of my career.’ The charity doesn’t use any computer-based programmes to provide prompts or suggest information, which means nurses must be knowledgeable about every aspect of the patient journey, making sure they keep up to date with the latest evidence and research.

Empowering others

Although Ms Craske also answers emails and has live online chats, most of her time is spent talking to callers on the phone. ‘Every call is different,’ she says. ‘Those using the service set the agenda. You’re able to give them time and are led by their needs.’

Subjects range from worries about symptoms, to what test results mean, the pros and cons of various treatment options and potential side effects.

‘Sometimes the person will have had a tidal wave of information at the clinic and not have understood a lot of it,’ she says. ‘We try to fill the holes.’ 

In particular, she’s found that her listening skills have improved, as there are no visual clues. Instead she has had to find new ways to clarify callers’ comprehension, including listening carefully to their responses to see if she can hear doubt. 

‘I get enormous job satisfaction from empowering the person with information and support,’ she says. ‘You can hear the relief in their voice when they feel they understand and are better equipped to make decisions and ask the right questions.’

Thinking of working on a helpline?
  • ‘Look beyond the NHS,’ says Martin Ledwick. ‘Most of these kinds of jobs are outside it.’ He advises contacting charities in your specialist area to see if they have any vacancies.
  • Develop a passion for the cause and a collaborative spirit. ‘You need a genuine interest and a willingness to become involved in other aspects of the organisation’s work,’ says Emma Craske, who has also reviewed literature and taken part in filming since joining Prostate Cancer last year.
  • Good communication skills are paramount. ‘You need an enquiring mind and wanting to find answers has really got to ring your bell,’ says Mr Ledwick. ‘You also need the confidence to say when you don’t know. There’s nothing wrong with not knowing everything. We have the skills to find out information and make judgements about its quality.’

 


Lynne Pearce is a freelance health writer

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