A unit based at Southampton University is re-examining healthcare roles as changes take place in the world of work. Debra Humphris explains

Around one-third of theUKpopulation is said to suffer from a long-term health problem - rising to two-thirds for the over 65s - and, with obesity and diabetes expected to worsen this situation, new healthcare solutions are needed.

Facing up to these challenges means not only new schemes and initiatives, but entirely different jobs and roles for the workforce.

The Health Care Innovation Unit at Southampton University was set up to help develop new ways of working. It is creating new roles and education for the health and social care workforce.

As a starting point, the unit is asking fundamental questions about ‘what is the work’ and ‘which skills do you need to do it’ before considering possible workforce solutions. That means developing close partnerships with the NHS and other healthcare providers and conducting in-depth research on how job roles really work.

The Year of Care initiative, for example, aims to provide a practical way to deal with the growing number of people who have long-term conditions such as obesity, but who may only turn to healthcare services when they suffer associated problems. Under the new approach, people are provided with an individual plan of action for each year, which involves a combination of ongoing support, including structured reviews and access to wider support and service providers. Large-scale pilots have begun with Hampshire primary care trust, Hampshire county council and Winchester and Eastleigh Healthcare trust.

A central emphasis is on getting people to take an active part in their health and well-being, supporting them in dealing with their long-term illness along with local multi-professional and multi-agency teams. This two-year project began in January and the partnerships at the heart of it are critical to transforming services for local people.

The result of this work will be to reconceptualise not only the processes of work but also the competencies and roles required to support individuals with long-term conditions.

New career opportunities for intermediate-level practitioner roles are opening up in many areas of practice, such as intermediate care, children's and family services, long-term conditions and public health. The unit is working with a range of employers to develop new ‘associate practitioner’ roles across health and social care. The basis for these developments is our foundation degree in health and social care, which we have designed in close partnership with employers.

One example of the mutual benefits of this approach has been the work done by colleagues at Southampton University Hospitals trust. The neonatal intensive care unit provided a placement opportunity for a foundation student and, with the support of the trust’s workforce redesign lead, the staff on the unit began the process of reconceptualising the staff mix to optimise the potential contribution of associate practitioner roles (band 4). This enabled the highly qualified specialist nurses to focus on optimising their skills with children and families.

Career springboard

The foundation degree also provides a valuable springboard for students. The diversity of health and social care programmes in the university opens up a variety of progression opportunities for students, who are often local to the area, to realise their ambitions to work in professional roles in the local health and social care services.

Universities will have an increasingly important role to play not only in research and education, but in social enterprise alongside local communities. They already have a strong reputation for spin-out firms – but this expertise is being steered to finding creative and alternative solutions to delivering health and social care services and to work alongside state and private sector provision.

The Health Care Innovation Unit at Southampton University, for example, is working with Solent Synergy to support the creation of social enterprises among community groups to increase economic regeneration. While these developments are still at an early stage, they illustrate how the capability of the university in combination with the local community can help address real change in public services.