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'People in the service sometimes look at things one mile wide and 10 miles deep, and I've needed them to change perspective'

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Karen Charman holds a director role at the NHS Confederation - and still works shifts in A&E.

At the age of 24, Karen Charman was working in the offices of cosmetics giant Avon, when she suddenly realised that she had to do something more meaningful with her life.

“I thought that if the most stressful thing in my day was a computer crashing, I knew I had to change career,” she recalls. “My mum was a nurse and my dad was a fireman, so there was a definite pull towards the public sector.”

Since then, she’s always been connected to nursing or the NHS. After training at Northampton General, she spent two years as a theatre nurse at the hospital, before working for the Royal College of Nursing for five years.

Her career has also included stints as HR director at Northampton General and acting deputy chief executive and director of performance at Hinchingbrooke Healthcare Trust.

Most recently, she was head of employment services at NHS Employers, where she was in charge of directing employment services, overseeing workforce planning, recruitment and retention, healthy work and wellbeing, modernising health professions and employment standards.

In October 2011, she was named director of business development at the NHS Confederation, having previously acted up as chief operating officer.

“My career has been a lot of fun,” she says.

“It does feel a bit like I’ve come full circle and am using my skills from my entire career at NHS Confederation.”

“My job involves looking at the future shape of the health system, given changes in the health act, and considering how best to use the confederation’s unique position to meet our business aims and develop an NHS that is financially good for patients, members and the NHS.”

All roads have led her here. Her “portfolio career”, as she describes it, has seen her work for and on behalf of trade unions and the Department of Health, as well as in performance development.

“People in the service sometimes look at things one mile wide and 10 miles deep, and I’ve needed them to change perspective and work across a bit more.

“That’s what NHS Employers does - creates a bridge between services so we don’t reinvent the wheel. I did this a lot - working with the Department of Work and Pensions on the Improving Working Lives project, for example.”

Her work relies not just on her expertise in resource management and feasibility but her understanding of nursing. The confederation is developing community forums to create a more coherent voice across community service providers and encouraging telehealth services to ensure that members can work at the pace and on the scale they need as reliance upon them increases.

“A business background and nursing background is quite a rare combination,” she says, “but as an HR director or manager, it’s given me empathy to understand why a nurse wants to run tests for the patient. I can relate to that and work out how to organise resources to ensure that system is run efficiently so the nurse can achieve that.”

She maintains her registration by doing shifts at Hinchingbrooke in the accident and emergency department or medical assessment unit, which keeps her connected with the NHS.

“I suppose I miss nursing and, after training, I only spent two years in theatre nursing before taking up the role at the RCN, working regionally and nationally on behalf of nurses,” she says.

“I wasn’t quite ready to leave nursing, but sometimes you have to take opportunities when they come along. And I felt that, although I wasn’t caring for and helping patients, I was looking after those people that were.”

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