Protecting Vulnerable Helpline Users.

Keeping Our Helpline Safe

Cancer Research UK

In the UK there has been renewed focus on making sure that organisations who work with children and vulnerable adults have policies and procedures in place to make sure they keep these client’s safe.

At first it might seem difficult to see how this applies in the setting on an anonymous cancer information helpline.  But because so many of our callers are going through difficult and life changing situations they are in a vulnerable state, even if they don’t fit into the usual definition of someone we would consider to be “at risk” or a vulnerable person.

Most of the time when people tell us about distress we wouldn’t necessarily consider them to be “at risk”.  But we needed to make sure that our policies in dealing with people who might be in immediate danger were robust and that the training for the team was up to date.

After much discussion and looking at existing policies and procedures we decided that in spirit our existing policies were in good order but made some changes to them to ensure they were clear and easy to understand.

Although we would always try and seek consent from callers before getting help for them, we make it clear on our website and email signatures that, although our service is confidential we can break this if we felt a person was in danger, and take action eg calling the police, social services, or emergency services.

However, it is sometimes tricky to know when to act and there can be grey areas.  To try and address this, we held a short training session with the helpline nurses to help them get a real sense of when and how to act if they were concerned about a caller.  The following are some examples of situations and how we might act on them.

If someone calls us and mentions in passing that sometimes they feel like they might “end it all”, the nurses would explore this with them, but would not necessarily take any action other than suggesting they talk to their carers or contact the “Samaritans” (a British helpline specialising in people having suicidal thoughts).  However, if some told us they were in the act of committing suicide or expressed an intention of harming someone else, we would stay with them on the line but alert a colleague to inform the emergency services.   It is worth noting that we often have limited information to give these services about the identity and location of the caller.  Once we have done this we consider that we have done all we can and we don’t see it as our responsibility to follow up on these occurrences, although the emergency services often get back to us to tell us what the outcome was.

Another example of when we might choose to act is if an older or sick person is describing a situation where they have inadequate care that meant they may come to some harm.  In this situation we would seek their permission to contact their local Social Services on their behalf.

At CRUK we now have a central safeguarding team who work across all the functions of the organisation to help us with issues like those described above.  This is a great resource for us as we can consult them and talk things through if we are unsure how to act in a specific situation.  Often these situations are ambiguous and a judgement call needs to be made to decide what to do.  This department are keeping record of any safeguarding concerns across all CRUK’s departments so that we can do effective audits and start to build a picture of how we deal with these situations

If you have any questions please do get in touch

Martin Ledwick Head Information Nurse CRUK