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Objectives: To examine the skills and expertise required and used by non-clinical call-handlers doing telephone triage and assessment, supported by a computer decision support system (CDSS) in urgent and emergency care services. Methods: Comparative case study of three different English emergency and urgent care services. Data consisted of nearly 500 hours of non-participant observation, 61 semi-structured interviews with health service staff, documentary analysis, and a survey of 106 call-handlers. Results: Communication skills and 'allowing the CDSS to drive the assessment' are viewed by the CDSS developers and staff as key competencies for call-handling. Call-handlers demonstrated high levels of experience, skills and expertise in using the CDSS. These workers are often portrayed simply as 'trained users' of technology, but they used a broader set of skills including team work, flexibility and 'translation'. Call-handlers develop a 'pseudo-clinical' expertise and draw upon their experiential knowledge to bring the CDSS into everyday use. Conclusions: Clinical assessment and triage by non-clinical staff supported by a CDSS represents a major change in urgent and emergency care delivery, warranting a detailed examination of call-handlers' skills and expertise. We found that this work appears to have more in common with clinical work and expertise than with other call-centre work that it superficially resembles. Recognizing the range of skills call-handlers demonstrate and developing a better understanding of this should be incorporated into the training for, and management of, emergency and urgent care call-handling. © The Royal Society of Medicine Press Ltd 2012.

Original publication




Journal article


Journal of Health Services Research and Policy

Publication Date





233 - 240