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Published: 10/04/2003, Volume II3, No. 5850 Page 14 15

There may not be any jobs for them yet, but medical technicians could be the way forward in reducing NHS workloads, explains Alison Moore

If workforce planners are feeling bruised, who could blame them? All the big solutions to transform the NHS workforce are looking shaky, to say the least.

Since the consultants' contract was rejected in the autumn, they have seen the GP contract run into trouble over its pay formula, and this week Agenda for Change - the centrepiece of national workforce reform - is set for stormy debate among unionists.

So three cheers for a local solution to tackle the problem that existing doctors and nurses spend too much time on routine tasks - taking blood pressure, venepuncture and the like - for which they are over-qualified.

Why not train other people to do this part of their work?

That is the thinking behind a course in Portsmouth which trains medical technicians. The two-year course, at foundation degree level, involves extensive work placements in the NHS as well as classroom and laboratory learning. Students can also opt for a part-time course, which takes three years. Although at the moment there are no jobs specifically for medical technicians, work is under way to set job descriptions and salary scales for them in the NHS.

Martin Severs, professor of elderly Healthcare at Portsmouth University, who had the original idea for the course, says: 'There are a large number of medical interventions, involving technology, which are safe and can be taught to practitioners.

'This will enable doctors and nurses to focus on professional decisions, planning and more complex tasks, and should improve the patient experience.'

The 16 students in the first year's intake cover an age range from 21 to 50-plus, and many have a healthcare background.

Tuition fees at Portsmouth University are covered by the local workforce development confederation, which has also met half the cost of a special skills laboratory at Queen Alexandra Hospital - part of Portsmouth Hospitals trust.

However, students have to support themselves or take out a student loan while they are studying - unlike student nurses who usually get bursaries.

The course is a pilot for the nationwide Changing Workforce project and could be replicated elsewhere. Professor Severs points out that other initiatives to train similar workers have been site and specialty-specific, whereas the Portsmouth course leads to a recognised qualification and a clearly defined set of competencies which can be used in any setting 'We teach our students underpinning knowledge using a range of medical technology, ' explains senior lecturer Jeanette Bartholomew. 'There were a number of repetitive tasks which could be combined to produce a worker who could work across boundaries.We are not training them as cardiac technicians or to work in accident and emergency, but they have a range of skills.'

The students take modules covering aspects such as the cardiovascular system, fluid and electrolyte management and drugs and other therapies. They will learn to operate a range of equipment such as ECGs, and take measurements such as blood pressure, sight and hearing tests, and take and test blood and urine.

But they will not go beyond this.

'They will not diagnose, they will not determine treatment.

They will use the technology, they will be able to differentiate normal results from abnormal and report back, ' says Dr Bartholomew.

Half the time is spent in the workplace where students will be supervised by specially trained NHS staff. Placements have included community hospitals, a medical assessment unit and an oncology unit. But do existing staff feel threatened by the new worker? Professor Severs acknowledges that initiatives such as this do arouse suspicion but says reaction is becoming more positive by the month.

Once the potential role of the medical technicians is explained, workers can see it is a distinct role which does not displace them, says Dr Bartholomew.

'The main thing has been getting the message across.'

Role play: back to the floor

Paula Atkins is looking forward to going back to work in the NHS once her two children are at school.But she will be returning as a medical technician, rather than in her old job as a healthcare support worker.

Ms Atkins, 34, has even done a placement on the elderly medical ward at Queen Alexandra Hospital where she had been a support worker.Now she is doing the medical technicians course part-time and should graduate in 2005.

'For me it is a great step forward - it is enhancing skills I already have. It has taken a while for everyone to recognise who we are and what our role is, ' she says.A uniform recently introduced for the students on placement has helped - as has other staff realising how useful they can be.