Nurse 'terminated' patients' calls

00:13, Dec 11 2013

An Auckland telehealth nurse who is alleged to have disconnected at least 49 callers is facing a charge of professional misconduct.

Senia Kelemete hung up on concerned patients after they said hello, after listening to their symptoms, after asking how she could help and sometimes mid-greeting, a professional conduct committee said.

The Health Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal heard evidence from the healthline team leader that Kelemete hung up on at least 49 callers between May 2011 and January 2012.

The registered nurse worked from home until she was dismissed in February last year.

The names of the national healthline and the witnesses are suppressed.

At 7.54pm on May 30, 2011, a caller said he had chest pain and tingling in his left hand. Kelemete asked about his breathing before hanging up.

The caller was on the line for 12 seconds.

In documentation, Kelemete wrote: "I accidentally ended this call." But a screen shot shows her moving the mouse over the "terminate" button.

While the button is part of the software, nurses are taught never to use it.

Screen shots over the next few months show Kelemete checking her emails, opening medical records, instant messaging and checking a screen that showed how long she would have to wait for her next call before disconnecting worried patients.

Callers lasted between a few seconds and about 30 seconds before she cut them off.

During a 24-second call in September 2011, Kelemete said, "Sorry, I'm losing you," to a caller before cutting them off.

In October 2011 she said, "I can hardly hear you," before checking how long the queue was for the next call and hanging up.

On August 29 2011, a caller complained that her husband was having trouble breathing. On listening to this, Kelemete ended the call.

The caller rang the healthline back and spoke to another nurse, saying that she had been disconnected. As a result of this, an ambulance was called for her husband.

After Kelemete's supervisor noticed her average call time had dropped, she was called into a conduct meeting and agreed to lift her practice.

She acknowledged she had been disconnecting calls, but provided no valid explanation, the supervisor said.

"She suggested that one of her colleagues had said that calls could be disconnected when staff are tired and feel like hanging up, but a review of the culture of night staff indicated that there was no similar performance pattern," the supervisor said.

Kelemete's performance improved for two months before she began disconnecting calls again in mid-December 2011.

On December 19, a caller said her husband had taken four Zopiclone tablets and she was unable to wake him.

Kelemete said she would call an ambulance, and the caller hung up.

There is no evidence of Kelemete calling an ambulance.

A week later, a caller rang concerned about her friend, who had septicaemia and had missed two days of penicillin injections and was experiencing pain "over her heart". Kelemete hung up.

There was no evidence Kelemete tried to call back any of the callers.

Kelemete had worked at the healthline since 2006.

She worked nights and weekends, where calls were usually longer "because the callers are generally more unwell and a lot of people are lonely or worried and need someone to talk to", the supervisor said.

Kelemete's calls dropped from an average of about eight minutes in 2010 to three and a half minutes in October 2011.

The healthline found that Kelemete had committed serious misconduct, and she was dismissed in February 2012.

The healthline supervisor said the behaviour was "unprecedented".