Allied health professionals play a vital role in delivering services to millions of patients, but there is still potential to use their expertise in assessment, diagnostics, treatment and rehabilitation to even greater effect.

As part of the shift in emphasis from secondary to primary care, allied health professional services provide a valuable opportunity for widening access, meaning fewer interventions, more autonomy and less disruption for patients. This results in a more cost-effective and efficient health service and a considerable contribution to the 18-week target.

These professionals have led the way in services such as walk-in clinics and have worked effectively across health, education and social services.

Working as autonomous professional practitioners, they are able to assess, diagnose, treat and discharge patients and therefore play a key role in the development and functioning of multi-disciplinary clinical assessment and treatment services.

They are invaluable in bridging the gap between primary and secondary care and providing improved services in, for example, physiotherapy, podiatry, occupational therapy and diagnostic radiography. They have already proven their capacity to reduce waiting times and improve access.

Developing roles

To develop this potential, service providers and commissioners should consider the opportunities offered by service redesign and role development. They will need to identify any current gaps in service provision and review these on a regular basis, ensuring services are aligned with the needs of patients and local priorities. They will also need to identify their allied health professional resource in terms of number and profession alongside activity, competencies and quality of service delivery to build their business case and identify opportunities for further services.

This approach is already tried and tested; for example, a new arthroplasty practitioner role has successfully reduced orthopaedic outpatient waiting times in Derby Hospitals foundation trust. The new position is typically filled by a physiotherapist or occupational therapist who supports the orthopaedic outpatient team by treating patients who have undergone total hip and knee arthroplasty, thereby freeing up consultancy time in follow-up clinics for new patients and ensuring continuity of post-op patient care.

Such an approach is time and cost-efficient in terms of service delivery and patient experience.

As part of the Social Partnership Forum action plan on maximising employment opportunities for newly qualified healthcare professionals, NHS Employers and the Allied Health Professions Federation have recently released a briefing entitled Securing the AHP Workforce Capacity to Achieve the 18-week Target.

NHS Employers is doing more work this year around the 18-week target, in particular on promoting good practice across organisations. We will be looking at the key workforce factors involved in meeting the target and assisting trusts that are struggling to do so. The government's deadline for meeting the 18-week target across all pathways is December 2008.

For further details of NHS Employers' work in supporting organisations in maximising employment opportunities for healthcare graduates, please see www.nhsemployers.org or the AHP Federation's website at www.ahpf.org.uk