Education And Debate

How To Do It: Run an emergency helpline

BMJ 1994; 309 doi: (Published 02 July 1994) Cite this as: BMJ 1994;309:44
  1. C Stark,
  2. P Christie,
  3. A C Marr
  1. Department of Public Health, Ross House, Paisley PA2 7BN20Communicable Diseases and Environmental Health (Scotland) Unit, Ruchill Hospital, Glasgow G20 9NB
  1. Correspondence to: Dr Christie.
  • Accepted 16 December 1993

Telephone helplines are an effective way of dealing with health related incidents in which large numbers of people need personal counselling or information for reassurance or case finding. Helplines often have to be set up at short notice, which is labour intensive and makes recruitment of appropriate staff difficult. They should ideally be part of local emergency planning resources. Doctors need to be included in the team organising the helpline to ensure that staff are properly briefed, to determine what data need to be collected, and to deal with specialised queries.

Telephone helplines are an increasingly common part of communication in health care and often have to be set up at short notice. They have recently been used in Britain after the discovery of healthcare workers infected with HIV or hepatitis B virus and technical problems on cervical screening programmes. If information can be adequately transmitted by the media a helpline should not be needed, but helplines are valuable when personal counselling or information needs to be provided.

Emergency telephone helplines are usually established as part of the early management of an incident. The decision to set up a helpline will be taken by the main incident team, taking into account the likely costs and benefits, but organisation and planning of the helpline should be delegated to a subgroup. The group should include a public health physician; a person with the managerial power to make and implement financial decisions; a person with knowledge of telecommunications; a middle manager or administrator to whom organisation tasks can be delegated; and a person who has access to the type of staff likely to be needed on the line. Early liaison with clinical specialists with knowledge of the main incident is essential.


The time available for planning will depend on the circumstances of the …

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