A focus on parity and not priority: An in-depth look at the work of Kerry Gospel, Armed Forces Covenant Lead at Frimley Health NHS Foundation Trust

After 30 years in the Armed Forces as a Paratrooper and Logistician, Kerry Gospel, Armed Forces Covenant Lead at Frimley Health NHS Foundation Trust, was at a time in his life when he felt he could give something back to make a difference to those who needed help.

Having been working on Covid logistic operations at the Trust for the previous two years, when the Trust applied for Armed Forces Covenant funding to employ someone full time to fully develop its Armed Forces offer, he was in the right place at the right time.

Kerry recalled: “I was just coming to the end of two years of doing Covid logistic operations and they asked me if I knew anybody who would be interested in the role.

“I said, well, yeah, I’d be interested in doing that role. I’d spent 30 years in the military and just happened to be local, and it happened to be at the right kind of time and age and stage in my life to take on the role. The Trust had already signed up and become Veteran Aware and had already gained Employee Recognition silver status. In order to make any kind of progress with that, they needed somebody in a full time role to try to take it forward.

“And it also tied in quite nicely with us coming out of Covid and trying to focus on our extended waiting lists and improving our patient experience as we moved forward into that clearer and calmer water post-Covid.”

Kerry started his role in August 2022. The approach taken was to focus on patients, staff, future activity and then wider engagement, but given that Kerry is the only paid individual covering this role, he acts almost like a spider reaching out through his web of contacts to spread further what he’s trying to achieve for the Armed Forces Community in the area.

The patient experience is essentially based around identifying veterans, working out what they need, trying to address the issues and considering whether to signpost through charitable pathways or through a clinical or medical pathway.

Since he started, between 4,000 and 5,000 people have been identified as veterans through the Electronic Patient Record, which required staff being trained up to “Ask the question: Do you serve or have you or a member of your family ever served in the UK Armed Forces?”    

Of that number, 337 have had to stay on the wards for a few days. A few of these were introduced to Op Courage, which provides mental health support for veterans, service leavers and reservists. Up to 12 cases were accelerated because their injury occurred during their service, and in two cases the Trust, through Kerry, reached out to the Veterans Trauma Network.

Issues still remain in terms of recording veteran status due to the patient not always identifying as a veteran, which is being looked into; it’s believed that in reality between 4,000 and 5,000 people who are veterans have been seen since he started.

“Once we identify those patients as they come in I go up and see them and work out their individual needs,” he said. “A large percentage of them just want a friendly face and a bit of liaison. Often it’s a case of signposting them into charities or similar avenues, and then occasionally it’s expediting their care, where we’re identifying in-service injuries, mental health issues and channelling them through Veteran Trauma Network, Op Courage, et cetera.

“We are very much focussed on parity not priority. We’re aware that a number of patients may have moved to the area and been on waiting lists in previous trusts and we make them aware of what we want to do about that. We don’t want them to be disadvantaged as a result of their time in service.

“So, if they were based in Catterick and they’ve now been posted to Aldershot and they’ve fallen off the Catterick waiting list for a new hip, then we will work with service managers to try and get those people to the right place on the list, looking at how long they’ve waited, rather than it being a post code lottery.”

What’s key is making sure veterans recognise him as a veteran and see him as a friendly face, which is helpful as he may pick up on things others may not.

For the staff focus, the approach has been a mix of floor-walking, going around all of the departments, speaking to every single individual ward to promote and advertise the Veteran Aware work across the Trust using a variety of means.

There are posters, the web, as well as events like Remembrance Day or Armed Forces Day and in sending out newsletters to staff who are ex-military with news relating to military matters, combined with having a strong Veterans Staff Network.

He recalled: “People started to buy into that and slowly but steadily, that database of veterans has grown and grown and grown. The knowledge is starting to get spread around the wards more.”

Alongside this, the Trust has a policy relating to increasing the reservist force. One aspect of this is giving all members of staff who are serving as reservists or army cadets, and volunteers an additional 10 days paid leave. Kerry acts as a mediator with managers to try to coordinate their shift patterns in order to allow them to do that.

He’s found that utilising staff who are veterans is key to helping improve the patient experience as that also helps to bring together staff who are veterans.

He said: “By bringing them in and encompassing them and explaining to them what we’re trying to achieve, they then act, almost like champions or additional parts of that spider’s web. By engaging veteran members of staff, they’re probably going be the strongest advocates particularly in spreading that knowledge throughout the Trust. It’s nice to know that fellow veterans are around. It’s the language, the banter, the socialising. It just makes for happier members of staff.”

This aspect feeds into recruitment because hospital trusts are not just clinically trained doctors and nurses. There are project managers, porters, logisticians, for instance, for which military personnel have the required skill sets. As a result, Kerry and colleagues get involved with career transition workshops or Garrison health fairs, for instance.

There is also a wider engagement piece of work, which sees Kerry going to Garrison-led meetings in Aldershot, making links with key external personnel, such as the Third Sector and the Garrison, while promoting the Trust and pathways into it.   

There is still a lot of work to do to embed the role. The role will cease to be funded beyond August next year, so he wants to make sure it is embedded and has created a business case in attempt to extend the role. 

And he said: “We need to get more people engaged as armed forces champions and to do that we need to be able to penetrate more into training and engagement with staff.”

But already he feels he is proving his value and is thankful to the Trust for what it’s done so far.

“What we’ve already done is now working and coming to fruition. So it is just that steady layering there. As an example, I go to the matrons’ meeting, I tell them who I am and what I’m trying to achieve and repeat this on a monthly basis with the senior sisters meeting the following month, then junior doctors and then senior doctors and then go back to the matrons. 

“It’s almost like DIY on your house. You fix a room, you work on all the others, and then you go back to the one that you first did, and you just re-layer.”

“Six months ago I was giving a presentation to the Parachute Regiment Association. As I finished my presentation on what we do, about 11 veterans came over and said ‘Hello mate, I’m waiting on an appointment for my hip’, or ‘I’m waiting on an appointment for my knee’. I took their details and looked into their cases.

“When I went back there for a D-Day Memorial, two veterans came over said ‘Thanks mate. I had my knee done and he’s doing the other one next month and he’s booked me in for my hip replacement in August and I’ve had my MRI scan now, thanks and I’ve managed to get my ketamine injection’. So I am able to drive down disadvantage and unwarranted variation for our veteran patients, which is a great feeling.”

Kerry Gospel oictured on his last day in uniform at his Passing Out Parade.

More updates