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'We might not have hands on jobs but we influence patients through our work'

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Theatre nurse advisers Lindsey Craig and Faye Harlen make sure that trusts get the right products at the right price

Stepping out of the NHS theatre environment into a commercial organisation may be unsettling for many nurses.

But when NHS Supply Chain, a government contract operated by DHL, which supplies everything from jam to gloves and gowns and catheters to GP surgeries and hospitals, advertised for theatre nurse advisers 18 months ago, it received more than 700 applicants.

The business sources and supplies six million lines a year - 120,000-140,000 a week - to trusts in England. It procures products at a bulk discount, passing on the savings to its accounts, which can be community services or hospitals. It has saved the NHS more than £200m to date and intends to save £1bn by 2016.
Having realised that theatre product purchasing required specific insights and skills, the business decided to employ theatre nurse advisers in the south.

The role is challenging - but that was just what appealed to the two nurses who bagged the roles.
“We may not have jobs that involve hands-on care now,” says Lindsey Craig. “But we have the ability to influence a greater number of patients through our work.”

They work with surgeons, theatre sisters and other staff to look at stock rotation and ordering systems, and carry out clinical trials with trusts on lines such as gowns, gloves and hand sanitisers.

“We have no commercial bias and are not salespeople,” says Faye Harlen, who has worked as a nurse in the NHS and the army. “Our remit is to look at the whole system and see what works best for them.”

Most recently, Ms Harlen spent five days in Papworth Hospital in Cambridge studying their needs around cardiac surgery. After identifying their requirements a course of action was devised to source the products that were most effective for them.

The advisers’ line manager, Chris Littlejohn, is the southern theatre sales manager, who spent seven years as a nurse in the NHS.

He says it is not uncommon for advisers to spend days working with a trust to fix one challenge, only to be asked to work on another 10 issues. So heavy is the demand for their objective approach to product selection and use that the duo will be launching a newsletter later this year to keep hospitals up to speed with their findings and recommendations.

“It helps that we understand the environment and the pressure that the surgeon and the team are under, and can speak their language,” says Ms Craig.
“Most teams know we’re here to help them achieve theatre excellence. We’re here to help trusts find products that fit their needs. We can find the same products at better value for the trust and therefore enable them to have more resources for patient care.”

Each of the seven regional NHS Supply Chain depots has a customer service team, which takes orders by phone and web. If a trust has difficulty with a product or if it is unavailable, the theatre nurse advisers can recommend something else that will work in a similar way or better.

The role involves staying in touch with the latest findings in surgery, so NHS Supply Chain makes certain that the nurses have enough time to do this - it’s a prerequisite of the post.

“The NHS is changing constantly but going out to trusts about five days a week enables us to keep up,” says Ms Craig. “We’re immersed in theatre every day and we can see best practice and what works in one hospital and share that with others.”

The roles have been so successful that NHS Supply Chain is now interviewing for two similar roles in the north, and its long-term aim is to have two theatre nurse advisers for each region.

Ms Harlen and Ms Craig advise: “You have to be proactive, interested in progress and want to help. You can’t just sit in your comfort zone.
“Lots of nurses just want to do hands-on patient care. This is about still affecting the patient, but having a much wider influence. It takes diplomacy in talking to teams but also a mindset to challenge people.”

Jenni Middleton

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