Community facilitator and project manager: An in-depth look at the role of the Armed Forces Advocate at James Paget University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust

After 23 years with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME), Chris Blyth decided he needed a new challenge.

Having reached the rank of Artificer Sergeant Major (ASM), he could rise no further unless commissioned as an officer so started job hunting and applied for the role of Armed Forces Advocate at James Paget University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.

This was a role funded on the proviso that the Trust was either accredited or was on its journey to becoming Veteran Aware.   The Trust accredited in July 2019 and obtained re-accreditation at the three year point in July 2022.

This is where he’s been since 9 May 2022 and in that time he’s made his mark having made contact with 250 patients. Of these, he’s made more than 60 referrals for additional support from the local armed forces charities such as Op Courage, Walking with the Wounded or Outside the Wire or from Environmental Health or Housing Officers.

The youngest patient he’s seen has been 21 and the oldest 104 years old. Most are 80 plus, so the reasons people are coming for support have generally been age-related and have done a period of National Service. 

To establish the role, Chris was set up within the Safeguarding Team and together with his manager thought through the practicalities of the role, using the Veterans Covenant Healthcare Alliance’s (VCHA) eight manifesto points, going through each step to create the role’s framework.

Up until the start of August, the focus was on developing the role so once it was launched it could provide a service.  Part of this was identifying veterans by including the question – Do you serve or have you or a member of your family ever served in the Armed Forces? – on the booking-in form and then changing its Electronic Patient Management System to include that question as well. A staff training package on the armed forces community was developed and delivered alongside mandatory Safeguarding Training.. A web page was also developed to help support staff and members of the community who wanted to find out more information.

And then, he reached out into the community, offering support to community organisations.

“It’s all about continuing to make the hospital the focal point within the community for Armed Forces support. I do a lot of fundraising within the community as well, so we can hold coffee mornings at the hospital now for our veterans. There are also information mornings where I have organisations come down and speak; people like Op Courage, Outside the Wire they attend, speak to people for me as well and I’m working closer with GP surgeries to get referrals from them so we can identify more within the community. That’s my main aim for the next 12 months – to get a better relationship with them.”

Chris’s role is a mix of community facilitator and project manager. He becomes involved when an individual is flagged on the Trust’s system as being a veteran, and particularly when notes are made on the system relating to concerns about their ability to stay in their home.  Chris has made many applications for funding on behalf of patients to the Royal British Legion for devices, such as stair lifts and central heating systems as well as mobility scooters. In many cases, individuals didn’t know they were eligible to apply for funding because of their service. Having made good community links has helped because it means referrals are progressed generally quite quickly.

There have also been cases where he’s referred veterans of working age to relevant bodies for financial and social support when they’ve had a diagnosis that has left them unable to work.

He says: “The role is to link, in simple terms, the individual with the correct organisation that they need support from, but it’s more complex than that, it’s speaking with the people, identifying whether they would need additional support or not, discussing their support networks, their home life. We discuss all that with the individuals and then we can identify whether they need support or not on that information and if they want support.

“If they don’t give a clear answer, then I will contact family and speak to family members, next of kin to see what their take is on the situation, as long as I have the patient’s permission to do so, obviously, and see if they have a different view from the patient.

“This is because a lot of the time the patient will say all’s fine when the family may say we’re really struggling to support our dad or mum at this time so I engage with them and also I engage with social services, discharge teams and case managers to make sure individuals get what they want on discharge. If there seems to be a bit of a delay, then I start trying to pull people together to try to make it happen.

“In some sense we don’t actually provide any support because we go to the organisations to get the support. At least 90 per cent of the individuals I’ve got support for would have not got support off their own back because they don’t know where to look. Sometimes they don’t even realise they’re entitled to support. That’s a big factor, especially amongst the National Service generation.

“If they didn’t deploy during that time, they probably don’t think they classify as a veteran or that they are worthy of support and they wouldn’t know where to look because most of the organisations literature is online. And these people don’t have the means of going online to find support. They sometimes might know they need support, but they wouldn’t know where to go.”

He points out: “Whether their reason for being in hospital is military related or not, it doesn’t matter because they’re still entitled to this support from these organisations today. They may need house adaptations, but that could take the council months and months, yet the RAF Benevolent Fund, the RBL, SSAFA will quite happily fund these projects for individuals that need it.”

What’s helped him in his role is having a forward-thinking Trust. “It’s always been the case of what can we do more?” he says.

This has meant his role is ever-expanding to the point where it’s sometimes becoming difficult to keep on top of it fully, so there are already plans to help his workload.

“I have had a couple of referrals starting to come through from GPs now, which is good, but there’s a lot more out there. What we may look to do is expand and evolve, potentially with me continuing the work in the hospital, have someone working with me to go out into the community to do follow up appointments with patients once they are discharged to see them in the environment to see how we could better the support for them.”

More updates