frontline staff

Frontline staff in doctors'surgeries were in the forefront of helpingmore than 100 households stay warm, reports Damien Flynn For too long, frontline staff in doctors' surgeries have been stereotyped as 'dragons on the door', whose very glance can turn patients to ashes.A project in North Staffordshire shows this is untrue and unfair.

The project, which ran for six weeks in January and February this year, helped more than 100 households in the North Stoke primary care trust area to get government grants totalling more than£100,000 for insulation and heating improvements.

This achievement was the result of a collaborative project between Beat the Cold, practice managers and frontline staff in the PCT.

Beat the Cold is an independent advice and referral agency working to reduce the incidence of cold-related illness in North Staffordshire.

The project, Prescribing Warmer Homes, was a response to an initiative by the North Staffordshire health action zone's programme, Changing Lives.

Fifteen groups - including the police, Age Concern and Gingerbread - took up the challenge, but Prescribing Warmer Homes was the overall winner.

The government has made substantial grants available to improve the health of people vulnerable to poverty, high fuel costs and cold-related illness, but many potential beneficiaries do not know about the grants or do not apply for them.

Prescribing Warmer Homes set out to identify eligible people, specifically among the patients attending surgeries in North Stoke.

Frontline staff encouraged patients to fill in a brief form at their local surgery. The forms were collected weekly and regular feedback given to practice managers. In response to the information given, referrals for grants were made or further advice and information sent. Everyone who completed a form was sent a personal reply.

The grants, which are now known as warm front grants, are targeted at people over 60, disabled people and households with young families.

People over 60 who receive a means-tested benefit may receive a grant of up to£2,000 for insulation measures and possibly a central heating system.

Grants of up to£700 are available to people in receipt of most disability benefits (though not incapacity benefit). This grant would be enough to cover measures such as the cost of roof insulation, cavity-wall insulation and draught-proofing. It is also available to young families who receive a means-tested benefit, including the working families tax credit.

The design of the leaflet was given careful thought. Its layout was attractive and the size of the grants flagged up as an incentive to read on. The form was quick and simple to complete. Patients were asked to leave it in a specially designated box at reception. A short publicity release was also prepared for community-broadcasting agency Action Line, at BBC Radio Stoke.

The crucial point in the success of the project was the staff 's willingness to take time to speak to individual patients and to encourage them to apply.

Receptionists at surgeries who did this effectively reported that it took less than half a minute to get the message across.

Many patients said they would not have thought of applying but for the encouragement of reception staff.Where staff felt they were too busy to do more than simply display the leaflets, the returns were very low.

The written report to practice managers indicated outcomes on a surgery-bysurgery basis.Managers commented that it was a great encouragement to their staff to see concrete evidence that their extra efforts were impacting directly on the lives of their patients. Staff also received positive feedback from patients.

During the period of the project, 139 leaflets were filled in. Of these, 24 households turned out to be entitled to grants of up to£2,000; 80 were entitled to grants of up to£700 and the other 32 received further information.

These grants may not be fully used in every case;

therefore it is only possible to talk of 'potential' grants.Nonetheless, potential grants total£104,000 - an impressive amount for a small-scale project.

Because of the continued involvement of two or three surgeries, a further 16 leaflets have been completed since the project officially closed. Of these, nine households were eligible for grants of up to£2,000, and five for the£700 grant.

Therefore, overall grant entitlement came to£125,000. As the funding for the project was just over£3,000, the result is a very significant investment yield. The project has attracted interest from other agencies, health professionals and fuel company NPower.

Surgery staff deserve more recognition: in future, if anyone is ignorant enough to think of doctors' receptionists as dragons, they should remind themselves that the most celebrated attribute of dragons is their ability to generate heat.

Damien Flynn is support officer, North Staffordshire Beat the Cold, Stoke on Trent.