I was queuing up at Boots in UHW the other day, grabbing my usual meal deal as I rushed from one thing to the next, and was doing a little bit of people watching as I waited. The concourse is a real hive of activity, and there are loads of people flowing backwards and forwards or chatting together over a sandwich, a cappuccino or a bottle of water.
I really like the hubbub of a busy hospital – I’m probably a bit institutionalised by now – but there is something energising to me about the variety of people all mixed in together – the patients, their relatives along with staff and students.
Being naturally curious I sometimes wonder about who all these people are, what their stories are, what they’re doing and where they’re going next. I like the sense of purpose you feel in health care facilities – the idea that everyone is there for a reason, either to be helped or to help.
There’s also a sense of privilege I feel too, working alongside so many talented, dedicated, passionate and capable people, all of whom are applying themselves to the job of looking after the people who come to see us. It occurred to me as I paid that I very rarely eat my lunch with anyone else, gobbling down my wrap and packet of grapes at my desk or in my car. But then I reminded myself there is one time each month when that’s not what happens.
I look forward to a special meeting each month – one that is quite different to the usual things I go to. This meeting, we refer to as Food for Thought, started happening last year and was prompted by something I’d read – I can’t remember where now. I’d like to share something good that I learnt at this month’s meeting with you in a moment.
Have you ever been a patient? I worked in a hospital in Yorkshire at the start of my career and one of my jobs was to fill the A&E rota with GPs who would work sessions in the department. Each week would start on a Monday with me ringing round to see if I could find doctors to fill the slots. After a while I found a GP who helpfully seemed to have a lot of time on his hands and was able and willing to cover a good proportion of my slots.
Soon I would breeze through this job in no time at all – a quick phone call to him and all would be well. Until one week, when my door was darkened by a towering presence – a Sister, with a ruddy outdoor face at least six foot tall in full sail with a starched hat, cuffs on her sleeves and a belt that hitched in her uniform over her large chest.
In a loud voice she thundered; “Which one of you does the rota for the doctors in A&E?” Timidly I admitted that it was me. “Right lad”, she fixed me with a keen gaze, “I don’t want you sending me Dr. X (my helpful doctor) – he’s too slow, and everything gets backed up round him – we can’t move for patients. Got it?” I submitted that I had caught her drift.
And I did try to avoid using him – but I would weaken and then every few weeks there would be another combustible conversation with the lovely Sister from A&E. Until one week and I fell ill. I was sent up to Occupational Health who took my temperature (104F) and recorded my symptoms (headache, stiff neck) and concluded I should go immediately to A&E. I protested feebly, but they replied that all was well – they had rung down and Sister was waiting for me. On arrival, true enough there she was and I was told to go behind a screen, take all my clothes off and put ‘this’ on – ‘this’ being a gown with no back. “Don’t get off the trolley – I don’t want you wandering round until we know what wrong with you,” she said.
Meekly I complied and then endured several interviews with nurses and various doctors, on each occasion asking if I could have a pee. Each person I spoke to said, if I could just wait a moment until the next job was done, they’d get me a bottle. Finally, I was informed that I was to be admitted – and that they would be taking me up to the ward in a few minutes. By now my need to pass water was (literally) my most pressing problem and on arrival on the ward, and after a short bit of clerking I was finally brought a bottle. I discovered however that the bottles appeared to have been kept in a deep freeze, and despite some increasingly desperate attempts I could not go while lying down.
Eventually, I got out of bed and stood – and finally obtained relief, urinating blissfully into the bottle in a long and loud stream. As I neared completion I glanced round and discovered it was visiting time and that I was standing in an open backed gown, passing water into a bottle in a nightingale ward in full view of visitors and other patients. I tell this story to remind myself that although I don’t regard myself as being particularly non-assertive, becoming a patient can be a very disempowering experience. I keep this memory alive because it helps me to step into the shoes of those who come to us for care or treatment – and to not lose sight of the fact that it’s often not the technical aspects of care or treatment that trouble our patients most – it’s the small details, the ability to really listen, to show we care, and to offer a simple helping hand.
This leads me back to my special, Food for Thought, meeting and the purpose of my story this week. These are meetings where staff from all levels and areas are randomly selected from the payroll and are then invited to have lunch with me so I can hear about what they do and listen to what its like for them as they work in our organisation. I know people have been nervous about coming to these lunches, but I think we are starting to get the word out that I’m no monster, that they’re not in some kind of trouble and that I’m actually genuinely interested to hear what life is like for them. And I always learn a huge amount.
Last week I met a group of staff, including Joanne Ellis, who is the Operational Team Manager, and who has worked for us for 24 years. Joanne looks after our cleaning staff and the catering team and she reminded me just how important these services are for our patients and how challenging this can be with the tight budgets and staff numbers we have.
She also told me a story, which I shall briefly share. One day she was contacted to say that a patient wanted to complain, and as is her usual practice she found time to pop up to the ward to see the patient. Unfortunately she couldn’t see him there and then so she had to come back later. It turns out that the patient was a Director in a well-known company that has a deserved reputation for the excellence of its customer service. On presenting herself he expressed surprise that she had made the effort to see him, and after listening to his complaint she made arrangements to sort out his issue.
Joanne Ellis, Operational Team Manager and Lee Taylor, Ward Based Caterer on A4.
They fell into conversation, and he disclosed what he did for a living (Director of Customer Experience) and mentioned that he had a budget of £2.5M for staff to spend to give their customers immediate redress for poor service. He admitted he had expected the worst on being admitted to hospital, and when he was confronted with a member of the catering team who was heavily tattooed, he knew that things were about to take a turn for the worst. However he explained that this young man had confounded his expectations and was in fact the kindest, and most sympathetic individual. Our patient was so impressed he told Joanne that if she didn’t need him, he would be delighted to take him on in his organisation as he’d rarely found someone as clearly committed to customer service as him.
So this week I’d like to congratulate and thank Joanne for keeping the flag flying despite the difficult circumstances she often finds herself in, for acting in the very best way when someone wanted to complain, for remaining positive and for showing her commitment to caring for our patients. And the young man with the tattoos? That’s Lee Taylor, Ward Based Caterer on A4 – well done Lee and thank you, it sounds like you’ve got a bright future ahead of you.