This first instalment in a series of articles giving insight into how HomeLink Healthcare works behind the scenes, asks our CEO & Clinical Director Jill Ireland about her role within the company, the challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic and the opportunities that exist within the wider industry.
I’m the CEO and Clinical Director, in addition to being one of the founding members of the organisation. Our aim for HomeLink Healthcare is to work in partnership with the NHS and to transform models of ‘hospital at home’ care
Day-to-day I have overall responsibility for the strategic direction, operational delivery clinical quality and safety within the organisation. At the core of our company is a clinical heartbeat – we are, above all, a clinically-led organisation.
One of the things we really pride ourselves as an organisation is being agile and responsive, which helps us work with our NHS commissioners in the most collaborative of ways. That stood us in good stead when COVID struck, especially in the early days when few people understood what was happening or what the impact might be.
For example, within a couple of weeks of the first lockdown, HomeLink Healthcare set up a COVID screening service in the East of England. Under normal circumstances, such a service would have taken several months to deliver. One of the impacts of COVID on the NHS and HomeLink Healthcare as part of the independent sector, has been the ability to stand shoulder to shoulder in the face of adversity.
It goes without saying that COVID has impacted negatively on the lives of so many, but the pandemic has also been a catalyst for change. Within healthcare we’ve seen technology embraced like never before, particularly in the realm of wearable devices, remote monitoring with the NHS itself adapting almost overnight to new ways of working that had been in the pipeline for many years.
Some of those changes, I think, will stay with us. The use of technology for things like virtual patient visits and to support more ‘hospital at home’ type services is being driven by a growing realisation that you can manage patients with sub-acute needs within the community. This maximises the utilisation of a reduced hospital bed base.
From a patient experience perspective, that’s extremely positive news. And I can see that trend towards ‘at home’ services continuing.
I think the greatest challenge the NHS faces now is the growing backlog of patients needing elective surgery and that’s really a big problem for the NHS to be facing alongside ongoing concerns about possible new COVID variants and how they might impact patient care needs.
In addition, we’re very aware that many patients have experienced deterioration in health due to the length of time they’ve needed to wait for surgery during the pandemic, to the point where they’re no longer fit for the procedure. So, we’re doing some work looking at pre-habilitation and pre-surgical optimisation, which involves putting interventions in place for patients, particularly around therapies, so that an individuals physical condition is maintained or improved before they get into hospital.
And then, once the surgery is complete, we can move to support those patients in their recovery at home, rather than in hospital. That’s where our services can really step in and help maximise flow through those hospital inpatient beds.
Two-thirds of my career was spent working exclusively within the NHS, where I’ve always felt that there was an opportunity to do things differently. The NHS is a huge organisation, so facilitating and enabling change is like turning an oil tanker around. It’s difficult, but it can be done, which was one of the reasons why I stepped outside of the NHS to help facilitate change from a different perspective.
As a clinician and as a leader I always strive to provide the best care and patient experience possible.
The impact of COVID also means there’s now more acceptance of what the independent sector can offer the NHS in terms of support. A lot that comes down to trust and the realisation that an independent company can indeed work with the NHS and achieve great things as a partnership.
Our existing clinical workforce is comprised of registered nurses, physiotherapists, and healthcare support workers. All our practitioners have a minimum of three years’ post-registration experience, which means we have very competent clinicians with a great balance of acute hospital and community expertise. The care that we deliver in our hospital at home services is necessarily a blend of both.
Organisationally, we work on a regional footprint, with practitioners rotating around different sites depending on patient geography.
From a logistics perspective, our planning systems ensure we can optimise patient facing time, while minimising travel time for staff. This geographical approach also means that practitioners, all of whom are based from home, can build up experience of working with different people at different hospitals, which is quite unusual and dynamic.
Regardless of COVID, we still have wider epidemiological changes to manage. We’re dealing with an ageing population, who are living longer with chronic disease. We have technology and new treatments coming onboard, but finite NHS resources. This means that, operationally, something needs to change. There isn’t a magic money tree to help the NHS cope with a growing demand that is becoming more and more expensive to deliver.
As a result, I think we’ll see a push towards more supported patient self-management. If you have diabetes, for example, there might be less reliance on GP visits when it comes to ongoing monitoring, I can certainly foresee a landscape where responsibility around health and illness rests more with the individual.
Undoubtedly the most influential people on my career were two ward sisters who I worked with just after I qualified.
They were inspirational women, leaders of their time and brilliant teachers. We all need great mentors.
NHS Chief Executive Amanda Pritchard. With my clinical head and heart, I would love to discuss how we can do things differently in healthcare –we’re on the cusp of doing just that. I would encourage her not to be afraid of accelerating change by embracing alternative ways of delivering patient-centred care that doesn’t necessarily require building new hospitals. I would encourage her to consider ‘Hospital without Walls’.
Everything. I’m at the point in my career where I’ve had lots of experience from many different roles working within the NHS. For me, my current role is an opportunity to put all of that learning together to create something new. As a team at HomeLink Healthcare, we are totally committed to doing the right thing for patients, harnessing our clinical heartbeat to make change happen. I love it.
Undoubtedly, to be true to yourself and to not be afraid to take risks. Don’t let the fear hold you back.
“I am so grateful to have been referred to HomeLink Healthcare, they have really helped me get back on my feet. If I had stayed in the hospital I would not have achieved everything I have done”
“The visiting therapist took her time with me, was always providing encouragement and without that I wouldn’t be at the point I am today.”
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