Patients as partners
Megan Betts, Kim Young and Zoe Young

Since 1996, hundreds of graduates have embarked upon careers in nursing thanks to the degree courses at Plymouth University: uniforms pressed, ready to utilise newly learned skills for the good of their patients.

But in 2015, to reflect a change of emphasis across national health, the School of Nursing and Midwifery asked itself, and its students, the question, ‘How can we work with patients to help them get the most out of their care?’

The answers that they’ve come up with have been in tune with the national heartbeat – so much so that earlier this year, Health Education England Senior Policy Nurse, Ruth Auton, came to see for herself the work being done. So what’s different about this education strategy, and how did it come about?

“We’re pioneering an ethos of ‘patients as partners’,” says Kim Young, Adult Nursing Field Lead and Nurse Lecturer, who has the responsibility for developing and implementing wider patient engagement initiatives. “That means providing nurses with the people skills that will serve them in good stead when they start their career in a clinical care setting. It supplements the existing activities that student nurses currently engage in during their clinical placement periods, and has the potential to make an important contribution to our local communities.”

The key development has been to link nursing students to patient participation groups (PPGs) based in GP practices. In collaboration with the Development Director at the Patients Association, Heather Eardley, the University launched a pilot project in the spring of 2015 involving 23 PPGs across the South West. Over a three-month period, nursing students attended meetings within their community to identify issues and suggest and create solutions, such as social and printed media campaigns, and communication sessions to raise awareness on key issues.

The project has not only benefited the community, through improving access to health services and better representation of hard-to-reach groups, but the wider patient engagement opportunities have also helped to enhance the students’ clinical placements. Student nurses now receive written feedback from patients, carers and service users on the care they provide on placements, helping them to fine-tune and perfect their practice.

Student nurse Megan Betts was partnered with a GP surgery in Falmouth, and during that time she created new resources such as a patient questionnaire. 

She said: “I was able to go into the GP surgery and brainstorm with the patient participation group. It was a totally new approach, both for them and for us as nursing students. In the case of this GP surgery, they really struggle to get young mums in to see them, so I helped to improve some of the baby vaccination information, such as leaflets with details on meningitis B. In the longer term, there are other issues the course could help with, such as working with young adults on sexual health and sun protection in the summer.”

Zoe Young became a student representative in not one but two PPGs, one of which was her own GP surgery, and she’s keen to see the partnership continue post-graduation.

She said: “Having seen the difference it can make, I’m going to continue to work with the PPGs after I qualify as a nurse this year.”

Kim Young, Adult Nursing Field Lead and Nurse Lecturer, said:

This project demonstrates how we’re taking on board government directives and ensuring that nurses are able to communicate with patients, advocate for and support them, and make important decisions on their behalf

To support the students ‘out in the field’, a specialist tag on Twitter @PUNC14 (Plymouth University Nursing Cohort 2014) was set up by Ray Jones, Professor of Health Informatics, enabling them to exchange ideas and best practice. Ray has since published a paper on the effectiveness of Twitter as an assessed module for first-year student nurses, and has been interviewed about his positive findings by national publications including Nursing Standard.

This wider patient engagement programme was deemed to have made such a difference that it was extended to the 2015–16 intake of students, and with the Nursing and Midwifery Council revising its nursing education standards next year, it could be replicated in higher education institutions across the country. Plymouth nursing students now undertake specific educational activities with a national patient representation group to learn how concerns and feedback are responded to by healthcare organisations.

James Munro, Chief Executive of Patient Opinion, said: “Over the past ten years, patient experience has come to be seen as one of the three quality pillars of modern healthcare, alongside safety and effectiveness. And so, increasingly, the education and training of healthcare professionals is emphasising not only anatomy and physiology, but also experience, communication and culture. Plymouth University has introduced Patient Opinion into the undergraduate nursing curriculum, and students are encouraged to engage strongly with social media and be actively involved with patient participation initiatives across the South West.”

Staff and students from Plymouth University will be working alongside Patient Opinion to present their engagement work at the Royal College of Nursing Centenary Conference in November, where they hope to inspire more national health providers.

“This project demonstrates how we’re taking on board government directives and ensuring that nurses are equipped to carry out their clinical role,” adds Kim. “But it is also about ensuring that they are able to communicate with patients, advocate for and support them, and make important decisions on their behalf.”