With 38 operators handling 5,500 calls a day, take a peek inside Saskatoon Health Region’s “invisible” workforce.

They may operate in anonimity, but switchboard operators play a vital role in the Saskatoon Health Region ability to deliver exceptional care.

The hardest part of Brenda Rookes’ job as a switchboard operator is handling the emotional calls. “We get calls in the middle of the night from worried parents asking us to check if their son or daughter has been admitted to hospital because they haven’t come home yet.” Then there are the calls from people who know their loved one has been injured or worse, killed. “They’re crying. They’re angry or confused.” Within her tiny office at Saskatoon City Hospital, Brenda does so much more than “just answering the phone.”

It seems odd that a department of 38 operators is often described as “invisible” but it’s a comment Rhonda Fafard, Regional Manager for Switchboard hears a lot. “When we moved the St. Paul’s Hospital switchboard department to Saskatoon City Hospital to streamline our services, we heard that many people thought that there was no longer a switchboard for St. Paul’s,” explains Fafard. “There is, it’s just at SCH.” The Royal University Hospital switchboard handles all the calls for RUH while SCH handles all calls for SCH, SPH, Parkridge as well as after hours calls for Sherbrooke Community Centre and for Home Care.

Between the SCH and RUH locations, the switchboard department averages 5,500 calls a day and approximately 2,700 pocket pages. During a busy period, one operator could handle up to 70 calls in 30 minutes. But the work doesn’t end with simply answering a call.

Tips for Calling Switchboard
• Be specific.
• Don’t use acronyms.
• Please be patient.
• Remember! Switchboard operators can’t offer medical advice!

Brenda Rookes says the key to managing the stressful times and the emotional calls is to keep in mind the needs of the person on the line. “You have to remember why they are upset,” she says. “Be patient, be kind and try and help them as much you possibly can.”

“Sometimes we have to do a lot of detective work to figure out exactly where or who people want to be connected with,” explains Fafard. “For example, we had one person who called and wanted to be connected to ‘the big envelope department.’ Many questions and calls later and we finally figured out that she meant X-ray.”

Besides operating a system that looks like a NASA computer panel, the job requires multitasking abilities, interpersonal skills and a huge knowledge base. “In 2007, we obtained new software so that we could build our own database and directory,” says Fafard. “That directory gets changed and updated every day by Patti Trapp, our Application Support Specialist.”

The directory is an important piece of technology that aids in efficiency and accuracy. “When I started at SPH 14 years ago, operators had to memorize all the phone numbers, including pager numbers,” explains Lancey Bachman, Operations Coordinator. “It used to take up to 144 hours to train an operator. Now, it only takes 80 hours but the reality is that an operator is in training for at least the first year on the job as there is so much to learn.”

The quality of the service they provide is very important to the Switchboard staff and they are diligent about measuring and monitoring their performance. The department’s goal is to have 85 per cent of calls answered within three seconds. They often achieve that goal. But, trauma calls and codes take priority. “Everything stops and the person responsible for that phone focuses solely on that call,” says Bachman.

“When those calls come in, your heart just pounds,” explains Nicole Leaderhouse, operator at RUH. “We help save lives but its training that you wish you didn’t ever have to use.”
Recalling the night that both the power and the back up power went out at SCH, as a result of a city wide outage, operator Tamara Klassen says the job can’t ever be described as dull. “Calls were coming in, alarms were going off and we were trying to do everything with just our cell phones for light. I was brand new to the job,” she groans. “It was chaos.”