UAlg medical students are “voices on the other end of the line” in the fight against Covid-19

UAlg medical students told the Sul Informação how has the experience been in the SNS24 call center in Faro

SNS24 call center supervisors in Faro – Photo: João Santos

«The environment and the positive energy that lives here at the SNS24 Call Center in Faro are something indescribable. I can only say that it is a very positive thing and that people are there full of desire to help». The testimony is from Jorge Mimoso, one of the more than 150 students of the Integrated Masters in Medicine (MIM) at the University of Algarve (UALG) who, since Sunday, have been attending strengthen the NHS helpline, to help address the bottlenecks felt by this service since the beginning of the Covid-19 epidemic.

Faced with the crisis that changed the lives of all Portuguese and put their lives on hold, UAlg's medical students came forward to help fight the spread of the disease. And if they can't do it in hospitals – as one realizes they would want to do –, they can do it sitting at a desk, on the phone. And the experience has been very rewarding, they assure.

“Our first day was on Sunday. We immediately started to attack strong. We were already aware that there were going to be a lot of calls, but we weren't expecting them to be falling all the time. It almost becomes overwhelming. And, often, they are people who have been waiting for some time. The team was spectacular. We prepared well for this. People have been trained, the trainers are spectacular, too», summed up to Sul Informação Isabel Malta, MIM finalist student and one of the 11 supervisors, or team leaders, of this project the university and the ABC – Algarve Biomedical Center, which has the support of Altice, in whose premises, in Faro, the call center.

“The feeling I have is knowing that we are being able to help people. I noticed that in many of the calls I took and that I saw my colleagues answering, we managed to rest whoever was on the other end of the line. There are people with many, many doubts and questions. That question has been around for a long time: I have been in contact with someone who has been in contact, what should I do? But they are people without symptoms. Just because they talk to us, they are much calmer», described, for his part, Rúben Jacinto, another supervisor.

“We all feel fulfilled. On the first day, we left here after one in the morning, very tired, but we felt that the effort was worth it and it is still worth it,” he added.

“It has been a good and very motivating experience. We haven't finished medical school yet and we can't be in the Hospital or in the field. And this is a very good way that we have to contribute”, illustrated, for her part, Roxanne Henk, also herself team leader.


Isabel Palmeirim – Photo: Hugo Rodrigues


This opportunity to help arose at the suggestion of Isabel Palmeirim, professor at MIM, after conversations held between the teacher and Nuno Marques, responsible for the ABC – Algarve Biomedical Center. “On Monday, the 9th, the medical school closed, like all schools in the country. And what we thought was how we could help, not going home calmly», described the professor at UAlg.

“It was quickly realized that, at that time, SNS24 was being the choke point. I tried to contact myself and couldn't. And, really, if we want to keep people at home, we have to provide them with the possibility of contacting the health services, so that they don't get anxious and leave home to go to hospitals,” added Isabel Palmeirim.

“Then the idea of ​​making a call center here in the Algarve, since we were going to have about 200 students stopped. And I thought: why not use them?” he said.

«In the beginning, we even thought only about final year students and one thing here for the Algarve. Through ABC, the Government was contacted to find out if they were interested, and they said yes. There was no possibility of forwarding calls from the Algarve here, but we could join SNS24. The government streamlined things for Altice to set up the telephone system. We found a place, where the phones began to be assembled on Thursday and on Friday the training began», revealed the UAlg teacher.

The training was provided by two technicians from SNS24 and took place "over several days, because we didn't want to have too many people in the same room either".

They started out as only the finalists, but quickly became the 5th and 6th year. “Later on, we open up to everyone, because they receive specific training and they all have basic training, enough for this”.


Isabel Malta – Photo: João Santos


«On the day that teacher Isabel Palmeirim spoke to us, to tell us that we would have to stay home from that day, because classes were going to be suspended, we asked everyone how we could help. And she told us that she had an idea, that she had been talking to Dr. Nuno Marques from ABC, which was to create a call center here to the Algarve. And that, if we were interested, we could move forward. Of course, no one said no,” said Isabel Malta.

«When this possibility arose, it was right away, we didn't doubt it, we took this project and said: let's go ahead, we have to do something», reinforced Rúben Jacinto.

Thus, there are over 150 people to "help decongest the line and to be voices on the other end of the line, which is very important."

This voice on the other end of the line can be instrumental in keeping people at home, “because otherwise people start to feel isolated, they start to question whether they are doing things right and that drives them out , to look for a health facility».

This is what Isabel Malta, Rúben Jacinto, Roxanne Henke and Jorge Mimoso, as well as the other hundred and a half MIM students, are, in many cases, the reassuring voice on the other end of the line.

“The role we have here is very important. The community is very concerned and trusts SNS24. Our role is to make people maintain this confidence and make the service faster. There is not a second in which a call has not been dropped,” said Roxanne Henk.

“In many of the calls we take, people either have doubts about their symptoms or want some kind of guidance. For example, they are worried because their child has a cough, even though they think it's just a cold, as it's been like this for weeks and had even gone to the doctor. Basically, they are looking for words to calm them down», he described to the Sul Informação Reuben Hyacinth.


Rúben Jacinto – Photo: João Santos


“At first, people are anxious, in some cases almost hysterical, to talk, worried about their situation. But, at the end of the call, they thank and wish us a good job, call us by our own name and give us strength. Our job is to listen, talk and calm down», he reinforced.

For this, these new voices of the SNS 24 rely not only on the training they received in recent days, but also on what they learned at MIM and in their academic training, as this medicine course has the particularity of having students who they are, at the very least, licensed in the field of Health or Science.

“In the first days we couldn't do the complete screening, as we did things in phases, to be absolutely sure that everything was done right,” explained Isabel Malta.

At this point, all the students involved have received specific training to “sort out, using an algorithm that was created specifically for this Covid-19 situation”. In addition, they were also enabled, by trainers from the NHS24, to inform people about public health issues, such as “educating and answering the many doubts that people still have about Covid-19, which are legitimate”.

As of today, MIM students at UALg, who are involved in the project, are doing «everything related to the new coronavirus, whether public health information, screening, as well as forwarding situations to the delegate health services or the helpline for doctors'.


Roxanne Henk – Photo: João Santos


Inside the building in which 42 service stations operate simultaneously, a wide range of skills is gathered at all times, as we are talking about people trained in different areas.

“I was a pharmacist. I have experience in a community pharmacy, which means I'm a little used to talking to the public,” says Isabel Malta.

«Educating for health comes from all of us, but health professionals, such as pharmacists, nurses and health technicians, have this role a lot. As such, I feel that many of my colleagues and I already had experience in this field. That is, this is not new to us. The trainers themselves said that we are very comfortable, because we already had experience in talking to people and educating,” he added.

On the other hand, at UAlg's MIM, students have «many workshops and great importance is given to communication from the first day of classes: how to give news, how to explain a procedure, how to make people calmer. This is an advantage for us».

And if there were any doubts about the determination of these future doctors, the case of Jorge Mimoso quickly puts them to rest. Jorge, in addition to being a finalist at MIM, is a nurse at INEM, working at VMER in Portimão. This did not prevent him from accumulating with this the role of supervisor of a team in the project of call center of the NHS 24 in Faro.


Jorge Mimoso – Photo: João Santos


«At the end of last week, with the INEM meetings and the meetings with the SNS24, it was not very easy. But we have to be prepared for this, including the ambition we set ourselves when we entered the medical course», he summed up, to the Sul Informação.

“I cannot neglect my responsibilities as a healthcare professional. I don't know what's coming next, there might even be a civil requisition that forces me to take more shifts. But until then, I'll be working on both fronts and giving everything I can», he concluded.

With call center already up and running, the UAlg MIM continues to think of ways to help fight Covid-19.

«In principle, we will expand to another call center, which will no longer be with students, but with professionals. They will be our former students, who will already be at the level above, the Doctor's Helpline, which is another point of embarrassment», he announced.

«We also launched a campaign yesterday with dental clinics, so that they provide personal protection material, in order to increase the hospital's capacity for Faro, because at some point it can become a limiting factor. We have to try to be one step ahead”, concluded Isabel Palmeirim.