East of England Region: Upskilling AHPs to transform critical care

Suhel KalamDuring the early stages of the pandemic, around 850 AHPs within the East of England were rapidly upskilled and many deployed into critical care. While only possible because other services were temporarily suspended, AHP redeployments have improved multi-disciplinary working and shown that AHP skill sets are highly transferable and adaptable.

In early 2020, Suhel Kalam, an Operating Department Practitioner (ODP) based at Colchester Hospital, and theatre staff colleagues received a week of intensive training to prepare them for redeployment into critical care. “Many ODP skills are transferable to intensive care – we administer similar drugs and operate ventilation machines – but there are differences,” Suhel explains. “Theatre anaesthetic machines are similar to ICU life support machines, but they’re not identical. The way you monitor and manage the patient’s condition, the drugs you give – it’s not the same.”

The theatre staff crash course covered topics such as ICU drugs, intravenous administration and ventilator use. Other AHP professions received different training tailored to their experience and planned redeployments. “I did feel like I was in at the deep end initially,” reflects Suhel. “But support was there. The experienced ICU sisters and charge nurses decided who did what, and they were realistic about the capacity of different AHPs to do unfamiliar tasks. Different specialities worked appropriately within their remits to provide care – but our remits were being expanded as we acquired new skills!”

Sharing knowledge, informing innovation

As well as increasing critical care capacity, AHP deployment increased knowledge transfer between professions. Nurses have reported improved understanding of early rehabilitation interventions such as speech and language therapy, through AHP colleagues helping out on wards. Suhel observed the contributions of other AHPs first hand. “Many physiotherapists joined ICU and their advice was invaluable – how to move and position proned patients to avoid pain or damage; which recovery positions were best for patients with lung damage; how frequently to reposition patients. Things we wouldn’t normally need to know as ODPs.”

An AHP Critical Care Development and Advisory Forum was set up after wave one to share innovation and embed learning for AHPs across the region. A new regional AHP online platform has also been created to promote good practice at pace and scale. “We know so much more about how to optimise AHP potential within critical care now,” says Penny Cason, AHP Strategic Lead for East Suffolk and North Essex NHS Foundation Trust. “This is informing gap analysis and business cases. We also know better how to deploy people effectively and support their wellbeing, such as rotating staff on deployment and making sure they have appropriate supervision. There is a dedicated workstream for people in support worker roles, for example.“

A vision for the future

The goal is to develop more opportunities to work differently in future. “COVID has highlighted under-utilisation and exemplars, and the need to invest more in our AHP workforce,” says Penny. “We need to consider all the 14 AHP professions in the broadest sense, looking at how we deploy AHPs across the health and care system regardless of organisational boundaries.”

Suhel agrees: “I met so many different colleagues from so many departments. We all learned from each other. Some people enjoyed ICU so much they are applying to move there permanently. It’s really enlightened me. It doesn’t matter who you are – you can be helpful and you can do more.”

For more information please contact Penny.Cason@esneft.nhs.uk