Connecting has been a fantastic opportunity to remind me why I joined the Department of Health, having recently come back after several years working in other parts of Government. It’s also given me a very useful snapshot of the reality of what patients and staff experience each day. So far I have spent two weeks out Connecting, and both experiences were very different.
A large teaching hospital
I spent a week at St George’s Healthcare NHS Trust where one of the biggest challenges of the week was just finding your way around! We were able to spend time in A&E, where they have developed new systems to help patients get directed to the right service as quickly as possible. We also spent time on some of the wards, in outpatients and talking to staff working in the pharmacy department. It was a real inspiration to listen to the pharmacy team talk about their commitment to patient care and experience. For example, they were looking into ways to change their systems to minimise the number of people who were delayed in going home because they were waiting for medicines.
Behind the scenes of ‘Bedlam’
My other week Connecting was spent at South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust ( SLaM). SLaM is a mental health trust in South London providing services across a very large area, and which also was the subject of a documentary called Bedlam. I wasn’t sure what to expect, and was worried I’d perhaps get in the way of staff working there, but the trust designed a great programme and the enthusiasm and commitment of the staff meant they were always willing to explain what they were doing.
I had been keen to visit a mental health organisation as I knew there were a lot of people who misused alcohol or drugs (the area of policy I work on) who also had mental health problems. However, I was overwhelmed by just how many people were struggling with both conditions and the challenges they experience in accessing support.
SLaM also provide services at Kings College Hospital, and it was very interesting to see how the mental and physical health experts worked together to get the patient the help they needed. Sometimes this takes time, which could cause difficulties in A&E, as it can take longer to understand if someone is depressed than it does to ask if their leg hurts. It sounds obvious, and is not always true, but it really affects how a patient experiences their care.
We also visited inpatient wards and community teams. We heard how they planned care for patients and I was really struck by the efforts made to look at the person as a whole. They were talking about family support, housing needs and employment, and they never lost sight of the person as an individual with specific needs. I was also surprised at how much time staff spent in trying to help the patient navigate what could be a complex system. For example, a patient turned up at A&E because he could not get a GP appointment, so one very qualified psychiatric nurse had to spend several hours tracking down a GP who would see him. Other people would spend hours on the phone to housing associations or helping patients with benefit forms.
I have definitely learned things from my experiences and, working with my team, we have already started to apply this to what we do back in the Department. We are talking to the mental health team to see if there is anything more that can be done to make it easier for drug and alcohol teams and mental health teams to work together. I will also be taking my experiences into conversations with other departments, for example with the Department for Work and Pensions about patients’ experience of applying for benefits.
I was very impressed by staff dedication to their jobs. I am hugely grateful for the time people spent with us and the willingness of both staff and patients to talk openly about their experiences.