Members of the NHS Modernisation Board are heading 'back to the floor' in a bid to give themselves a taste of life on the front line and to help engage staff in the process of change in the health service.

The initiative, agreed at a meeting of the board, kicked off when chair, consultant surgeon at St Mary's NHS trust, Professor Ara Darzi, swapped his operating gown for a porter's uniform to do the Friday night shift at his accident and emergency department last week.

'It was certainly very different from what I expected, ' he said. 'It gives you an insight into patients' initial experience of the NHS.

Porters are among the first people they have to deal with rather than clinical staff and in many ways they open up to you more.

'Not everyone was pleasant and you can see some of the things that porters face.

'You certainly learn they do a very important job, and they also work extremely well as a team which is something that we could all learn from.'

Although his 6pm to 1am stint in A&E was done anonymously, at one stage he was told to get ice to treat a head injury from one of the operating theatres where he normally works.

'When I walked in most of them knew who I was.

'I asked for the ice and they thought I was stocking up for a Friday night party, which made me smile.'

Professor Darzi described his experience as 'invaluable' and will be returning to the frontline again - possibly working alongside nursing staff. Other colleagues including consultants at his trust have also expressed an interest.

Other taskforce and board members scheduled to roll up their sleeves include Barbara Hakin, chief executive of Bradford South and West Primary Care trust, Sue Page, chief executive of Northumbria Healthcare trust, director of the Modernisation Agency David Fillingham and NHS chief executive Nigel Crisp.

Ms Hakin, who is to work as a receptionist at one of her local GP practices later this month, told HSJ: 'I think it will not be possible to pretend to the people working for the trust that I am not chief executive, but as far as the public are concerned, they will not know.'

'It is important because it is going to give me an idea of what it is like at the coal-face.

'Receptionists have a tough job.

They often have to deal with the frustrations of the public so it seems a good place to start.'

A Department of Health spokeswoman said those involved have been keen to stress the exercise is not a publicity stunt but an opportunity to really engage with staff one year on from the NHS plan when the 'warm glow' had dissipated.