GP reception staff 'could save lives' with stroke training

Training GP reception staff to spot the symptoms of stroke when patients call will mean many more people can access potentially life-saving medication earlier, says a GP leading a local initiative.

Dr Liz Bates, a GP at Jiggins Lane Medical Centre, Bartley Green, Birmingham, is piloting a training programme that will allow reception staff to know when patients are calling with an emergency.

One in five patients called their GP at the onset of stroke symptoms, found a study from the University of Birmingham, where Dr Bates is also a clinical lecturer.

None of these patients went on to receive ‘clot-busting’ medication within the recommended 4.5 hours.

‘It’s an area that reception staff find challenging, and report not having received direct training in,’ she told GP.

‘We hope to work on communication skills around emergencies – with patients on the phone and with clinical staff – and encourage a degree of confidence about when to seek help, and clinical input.’

Signs of stroke

NHS adverts promote the Face, Arms, Speech and Time (FAST) mnemonic to help people recognise stroke symptoms. But if fewer than the three signs were mentioned in a phone call, patients were less likely to be told to call 999, the research found.

‘The vast majority of calls from patients who reported all three FAST symptoms were well-handled, and they were immediately told to call 999 or put through to a clinician,’ said Dr Bates.

‘But if patients reported fewer than three symptoms, they were progressively less likely to be put through for immediate action.’

Having a clear practice policy about such emergency calls is vital to ensuring reception staff know which ones to prioritise, so practice managers can also take part in the training.

‘A lack of clear policy in this area might be one of the things that is delaying patients getting through to the right care. Part of the remit of the project is to encourage practices to think about their policy in this area, and develop one that works for them,’ Dr Bates said.

Rolling out

Training begins in April and can be completed in a two-hour e-learning module or a three-hour face-to-face session. The success of both methods will be evaluated after six months, and if the pilot is successful, the training could be rolled out nationally.

Dr Bates thinks the training will apply to other emergency calls – such as patients calling in with heart attack symptoms.

‘We’re hoping to develop skills that are more broadly applicable, allowing the staff to know which calls are urgent,’ she said.

‘We’re certainly not looking to turn reception staff into triage managers – we’re hoping to develop their ability to apply the FAST algorithm and improve their confidence,’ Dr Bates said.

Training is free and open to practices in the West Midlands. For more information contact

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