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Birmingham Community Healthcare listening, learning and becoming 'forces friendly'

Michael Wittmann and physio Debbie Chilman at WMRC
Ex-serviceman receives regular physiotherapy at WMRC

West Midlands Rehabilitation Centre (WMRC) has a long history of taking time to listen and respond to all the communities it serves right across the region.

Recent years have seen a growing need to meet the very varied needs of military personnel and their families - from Second World War veterans to servicepeople injured in Northern Ireland, the Falklands and recent active service in the Gulf, the Balkans and Afghanistan.

The number of serving and former military personnel treated at rehabilitation services’ main centre in Selly Oak has increased, presenting the challenge of developing responsive services capable of addressing very particular physical and psychological issues.

This trend has been prompted by a number of converging factors.

Firstly, the last two decades have seen a relatively large number of British servicepeople deployed abroad. Secondly, a greater proportion are sustaining survivable injuries – partly due to the increased use of smaller explosive devices with the capacity to inflict serious injury but less potential to cause fatalities.

Finally, additional pressure has been created by advances in treatment – particularly in the initial period following traumatic injury – which have seen a larger proportion of servicepeople survive and enter prolonged rehabilitation than in earlier conflicts.

In addition, the Trust aims to play its part in meeting challenges set by a national drive to improve prosthetics service for military veterans. WMRC is part of a network of specialist rehabilitation centres for amputee veterans and that responsibility extends beyond the essential clinical services provided.

Specialist services clinical director Dr Imad Soryal (pictured below) sees potential to create an NHS ‘gateway’ to address the wider health and wellbeing needs of military personnel.

"Veterans have already given us lots of thoughts about what the Trust can do not only in terms of specialist treatment but also in terms of their transition from the healthcare services provided by the military to accessing the NHS.

“The richness of the debate has prompted a huge range of ideas and emotions and stimulated us to work even harder to ensure that service personnel are supported to make a smooth transition into the NHS when their period of service comes to an end.

“My aim through opening up this conversation with former servicemen and others is to arrive at a place where we can truly say that being ‘military friendly’ is at the heart of the Trust’s strategy.”

BCHC’s patient experience team recently led a ‘listening’ event at WMRC to find out more about how the Trust can support veterans.

Alison Last, associate director of patient experience, (also pictured below) added: “There was a real buzz in the rooms where we held the discussions, which generated a huge amount of information and opinion about what veterans, and agencies who work to support ex-servicepeople, think about what we do well and where we could support them better.

“All of this material gives us a really strong platform on which to build. It really represents the beginning of a conversation which will be invaluable as we look at ways of working to better meet the needs of current and former military personnel.”

BCHC staff and Second World War veteran Ron Needle at WMRC
Ron Needle (second from left) is pictured with Birmingham Community Healthcare colleagues including (third from left) associate director of patient experience Alison Last and (extreme right) rehabilitation services clinical director Dr Imad Soryal.

Veteran viewpoint

Ron Needle lost his right leg below the knee in January, 1945 when his Lancaster Bomber crashed in Northern France while returning from a bombing sortie over Munich. He was 19.

Now 87, Ron (pictured, left) says rehabilitation services have supplied him with ‘nine or 10’ prostheses over the decades. He has nothing but praise for the quality of care, but believes military veterans need more help in accessing NHS services.

“I sincerely think the prosthesis team does a wonderful job,” said Ron, who lives in Bournville.

“What can be improved, though, is the information available to veterans to help them understand what to do and where to go to get the support they need.

"It is difficult to adapt when you leave the armed forces even in the best of circumstances. Coupled with serious injury or mental health issues, it is even more difficult.”

Dr Dan Poulter MP meeting military veterans at WMRC
Nigel Sankey (centre) was among ex-servicemen who met Dr Dan Poulter MP to discuss how the NHS can better meet veterans' needs.

Veteran Viewpoint

Under-Secretary of State for Health, Dr Dan Poulter saw for himself how the Trust has earned a strong track record for treating military veterans when he visited West Midlands Rehabilitation Centre.

Martin Sankey, whose leg was amputated following injury during the Falklands War, said: "In the army, you are used to getting the kit you need – limbs for different purposes, specialist wheelchairs. It’s easy to access. But that changes on civvy street – it can take much longer to get equipment repaired or replaced.

"The transition can be very difficult for guys coming out of the forces. I’m encouraged the NHS is trying to improve the support for veterans.

"There seems to be a real will for the armed forces, the NHS and other organisations to work more closely together.”

Amputee rehabilitation and orthotics specialist Dr Jeff Lindsay said: “We are very proud that the specialist skills, dedication and experience of our team make such a lasting difference to the lives of injured servicemen.

“Dr Poulter’s visit was a good opportunity for him to see the highly responsive and flexible approach we employ to meet each individual’s needs and for him to listen to the views of some of the veterans who have benefited from our services.”