“Constantly trying to ensure we raise awareness…” An in-depth look at the work of Shropshire Community Health NHS Trust’s Armed Forces Lead

Having spent 36 years as a Reservist before finally handing in her chit, Lt Col (Retd) Maggie Durrant RRC understands, as well as anyone with connections to the Armed Forces, the impact service has on everyday life. It is this understanding that she’s brought to her role as Programme Manager for the Vaccination Service and Armed Forces Covenant Lead for Shropshire Community Health NHS Trust (Shropcom), alongside her understanding of the VCHA programme and the growing impact this is having on improving care for the Armed Forces Community.

“I reflect on my own Armed Forces service, and that of Reservist and Regular colleagues when thinking about how the Trust can support the Armed Forces community. Having an appreciation of the benefits of military service, but also the challenges and life impacts, such as the upheaval associated with frequency of moves for regular serving personnel and their families, is useful.

“My own experience of deployments and exercises and affect these had on my own children and my husband, but also on both sets of our parents, as I relied heavily on family in looking after the kids and supporting them and each other.

“The significance and importance of having a supportive employer and understanding work colleagues, shouldn’t be underestimated either.

“As a Reservist, I’d have some choice of when and what to attend, as well as having reasonable notice, particularly of exercises (UK or abroad), or of potential mobilisation for deployments.”

“For those serving in the Regulars, there’s often very little choice, they’re told when and (sometimes) where, dates can change with little warning, leave cancelled at short notice, yet maybe away for possibly six weeks, three months, six months periods; all of which have a huge impact in many ways on them and their families.

“I think from an NHS perspective as a health community, we don’t always appreciate what this must be like, and the fall out. So, for me, constantly trying to ensure we raise awareness within our own organisations is vital. I wanted to ensure that by signing the Armed Forces Covenant we were also looking after our employees.”

Commissioned in 1985, Maggie served on tours in Iraq, Afghanistan and in Sierra Leone primarily in the field hospital environment before her final posting as Commanding Officer of the then Medical Operational Support Group, which is now the Medical Operational Support Unit, part of 2 Medical Brigade.

She absolutely loved it, and these experiences helped her NHS career, providing her with the confidence to develop her nursing and management career alongside her Reservist career.

Soon after joining her current Trust in July 2022 as Programme Manager for the Vaccination Service, one of the executive directors asked if she would try to get the Trust signed up to the Armed Forces Covenant because they weren’t at that point.

Part of the reason was her Reservist background and her experience in having worked on Covenant signing for her previous Trust, the Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic Hospital NHS Foundation Trust (RJAH).

That was the starting point from which Maggie readily progressed to work on Veteran Aware accreditation, which took place in April this year (2023).

“This is such an incredibly valuable programme for the Armed Forces Community,” she says.

Maggie started by liaising with two Shropcom colleagues whose earlier attempts to get Armed Forces work off the ground came unstuck because of the pandemic. She then set up an Armed Forces Network group, whose members help her in developing aspects of the Armed Forces programme, which includes looking at the patient experience, operational pathways, career transition, and HR policy. She ensures either herself or a colleague attend relevant external events, lectures, meetings and share communications, all of which are key.

With the Armed Forces Network group set up, Maggie is using the team to start reaching out across the Trust.  “What I’m trying to do is making sure it’s not me doing everything, I’m now trying to get other people to take a lead on different aspects, so that I don’t become a single point of failure.”

With a good project plan, which is constantly evolving, Maggie is endeavouring to embed the positive focus which has been initiated, but conscious that it’s still early days.

“One workstream is directed at data capture, with our electronic patient record assisting with relevant system functionality. Another workstream is working on improvements and ratification to the policy for time off work for reservist and cadet forces adult volunteers’ activities.

“They’re doing most of this activity in their own time but having at least two weeks additional paid leave is a key ambition.”

She adds: “One of the big challenges in a community trust, such as Shropshire, is how we connect with staff, who are based at multiple sites across the county, plus hybrid working now the norm. While the Trust does publish bulletins, newsletters and related stories and support armed forces events, it is tough to get communication and messaging out across the whole of the Trust on a regular basis, to raise the profile internally and externally, or to hold events that large numbers can attend.”

Having growing numbers of contacts across the Trust and within the wider community, aided by the local authorities does help, as does collaborating with colleagues in other parts of the local NHS, such as the Integrated Care Board, Acute Trusts, and with GP practices that are Veteran Friendly. 

She feels she’s started to make a significant difference, but with lots more to do, its’ a work in progress. But Maggie has a vision which includes seeing the routine capture of Armed Forces’ status both of our employees and of our patients, embedded. From this, Maggie wants to see “appropriate personalising of care taking into consideration the needs of armed forces community”. This starts with the ‘ask and record’, but needs to be able to include the ‘so what’ does this mean, what do we do with it? “Our staff need to be trained and informed, able to access resources, advise and assist, even if, initially, this is just signposting to other services and organisations.”

Maggie wants to see both their local AF network group and a system-wide group meeting regularly, collaborating, with open invites, sharing, discussing, and learning from others’ experiences, both internal and external.

“Ultimately, I’d like the Trust to invest in the employment of an individual whose main role is as Armed Forces Champion, responsible for interacting with patients and staff, leading, engaging, interacting, liaising and collaborating internally and with external organisations, to drive forward our Covenant pledges, embed, monitor, audit outcomes and effect, and inform continuous improvement.”

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