What the cost of living means for South East London ICS
Communities and people are feeling the squeeze, and cost of living pressures are felt more in the capital because high housing and living costs mean that Londoners have less disposable income than anywhere else in the country. The ICS as a major institution and employer in south London knows this because it is firmly anchored in its local community and local environment. As a local ‘anchor’ organisation the ICS looks to bring social value to all it does, to make a difference to people’s lives and open up opportunities.
This means things like being a London Living Wage employer. It means breaking down barriers so it is easier for people to access employment opportunities and easier for local firms to do business with the ICS and partners.
This approach is shown well in work that is going on in Bexley where an apprenticeship programme has been created for people to become Digital Support Technicians within the NHS. The jobs created for the Digital Support Technicians are based in local GP surgeries and build their IT skills. It also aims to support and improve how people can use NHS digital services.
What are digital services and why do they matter?
So much of our day to day lives are based around digital interactions, and health is no different. Surgeries across south east London are using technology from apps, and online booking systems, to secure ways to share information across health and also with social care. Patients are increasingly wanting to improve their health by using resources online or manage any health conditions via their phone or watch. In your local surgery, staff from the reception desk through to the consulting room use technology, software systems and IT everyday and need to know how to use it best for both them and for the benefit of patients.
Before the pandemic, commissioners in Bexley started to look at what digital skills were needed in Primary Care (Primary Care is local healthcare like doctors’ surgeries and health centres). Bexley already had the highest number of NHS-related apprentices in London, so it made sense to create a digital apprenticeship scheme to support GP practices to get onboard their IT and technology.
Once the plan was agreed, the funding in place, and the successful candidates appointed, the first four apprentices started their careers just as the pandemic hit in spring 2020. Two years on, each of them has successfully completed the programme and have permanent roles in the NHS.
One of the Digital Support Technicians, Terry Beckley, looked back on his journey and shared his experiences.
Opening the door to a digital career
The apprenticeship scheme was designed to open up opportunities to develop a career in the NHS to people who may not have considered it before. Doing this, the commissioners were also aware that working in a surgery can be daunting with competing demands, busy teams and always something happening, and they looked for candidates who had a certain level of maturity and resilience to be able to work in such a fast-paced environment.
Terry Beckley explained how his background in retail and construction was an asset:
“I was looking to retrain. I had quite good tech knowledge combined with dealing with the public. I was looking for apprenticeships in IT to try and retrain, this one sounded like it was a person facing kind of IT role. And so I felt like I got a lot of confidence in going for it. I suppose it was the healthcare side of things that is actually probably more daunting than anything else because I didn’t know anything about it, but it felt like a really good option.
He continued: “I guess I felt confident I could do the role, but I didn’t necessarily know I would be suited for it because I didn’t have any medical training or anything like that. But that didn’t seem to matter because they were looking for more; I guess like a hybrid between a tech person, but also a customer service person. And so that’s why I applied for it, it was more that I felt like I was suited to that kind of aspect of the role”
Starting in unique circumstances
As the four apprentices got ready to start their new role the first wave of the global pandemic started. Supplied with laptops so they could start their training from home, their training was brought forward because they weren’t able to work in-person in the surgeries until lockdown restrictions were eased.
Completing their training first meant the apprentices took with them a good set of skills and knowledge into the surgery and were in a good position to build on this learning later in a practical environment.
During the apprenticeship placements, the Digital Support Technicians had lots of support to grow and learn. They had three days a week working in the GP surgery, one day working with the IT team in the Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) and one day a week dedicated to learning to achieve their apprenticeship. In addition, they have weekly supervision by managers with primary care and digital experience.
Their time during the pandemic also gave them invaluable experience on the ground, like the setup and digital operation of vaccine hubs.
Terry noted he was able to bring in his experience and the value it brought to the work of the surgery at that time:
“I got brought into the help with COVID clinics, and it was sort of like a live event, being at the forefront of that, and helping out, and how the GP federation supported the practices and during the COVID jabs. I was meeting with different software companies, they were pitching their booking systems and so it was cool to be involved in something that important. It was quite cool to have my opinion listen to about what system should be used. They (surgeries) would come to me and ask, does this is this software suitable? Is it going to solve this problem that we have? We need this sort of software to do this, can you look into it and see if it will not? That was cool.”
The training meant that in a short period the Digital Support Technicians got up to speed on complex internal NHS systems for patient appointments, training, coding, auditing and data management and storage and many business systems. They quickly became ‘superusers’ and as experts in the system they could train and support others and get the best from the software and tech they had. They also learned about websites, patient satisfaction surveys and the latest digital apps and software, providing technical support and training to both staff and patients on how to better use the systems and resources.
Starting the scheme during Covid restrictions has meant that the apprentices have not had the chance to work with patients and the public as much as they would have liked to. Mostly they have had to use their communication skills within the surgeries though one of the apprentices has been able to run a drop-in service for patients who needed support to learn how to use phone apps and support online and show them how to do it in person.
Of course, it’s not all about software and systems, more often than not it was also the day to day troubleshooting like sorting out people’s computers, printers and configuring laptops and PCs too, making them invaluable to the local teams.
What next for the Digital Support Technicians and for Bexley?
The four apprentices passed their final assessment in December 2021 and have all been employed as Digital Support Technicians. Well established in their roles and across the 23 surgeries in Bexley, they support each other and share what they know, their learning and experience.
With such experienced, motivated and highly trained workforce it was really important to not only retain these skills within our south London communities but to build on them into the future. Other boroughs across south east London and beyond are looking to what’s been done in the area and Bexley are currently looking at how they can scale the digital apprenticeship scheme out across the capital.