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Unlocking the full potential - one healthcare assistant's story

Winnie Hignell speaking at opening of Solihull College health and social care skills suite

Healthcare assistant Winnie Hignell loves her job.

Working on late calls, typically from 6.30pm until about 10.30pm, Winnie’s caseload is mostly made up of elderly people receiving palliative or end-of-life care. She knows that often it is the most simple acts of kindness and understanding that make the most profound difference to their lives.

Winnie is proud to have been a healthcare assistant in the NHS for 23 years and proud of the difference the role can make in delivering personalised care. But she believes there is much untapped potential among the dedicated staff who perform the role and has made it her mission to help change that.

“I have a golden ticket into people’s personal space,” says the 53-year-old mum-of -three.

“A lot of the time, the people I care for are experiencing what they perceive as a crisis. I view it as a privilege to be invited into those people’s homes to help at that moment in their lives.

“But there’s a lot more room for caring than can be fitted into a nurse’s bag. When you knock on that door, you don’t know what lies behind – you have some clinical information and personal details but the skill is in assessing and addressing wider issues.

“That’s the therapeutic relationship that I’m so passionate about – going outside of the medical model to cater for an individual’s wider social and personal needs.”

Winnie is halfway through a new two-year foundation degree programme at Solihull College, leading to qualification as an assistant practitioner.

The course is the latest opportunity she has seized to expand her skills and knowledge, having  gained a full degree in 2002 in community, youth and play from the University of Birmingham.

Winnie’s drive to learn, explore and help others unlock their full potential professionally and personally has seen her travel the world, representing the voice of the adult learner, on policy committees and in international forums.

Her journey is all the more remarkable given that she could not read or write functionally until diagnosed with dyslexia at the age of 36.

“The staff at my youngest son’s nursery got me back into education,” she recalls.

“There was a fantastic, pioneering lady there who organised trips for parents to the local college. I went most weeks for about nine months and, gradually, the fear was broken. I realised that learning could be for me.

“I went on taster courses and eventually passed four GCSEs. I was on my way.

Winnie Hignell at Moseley Hall Hospital
Winnie takes a break in the gardens of Moseley Hall Hospital.

“Even now, when I walk into an educational establishment, there’s still a fleeting moment when that humiliating, dispiriting feeling that I don’t belong returns.

“That’s what I’m determined to help change – healthcare assistants have the least opportunity for education and development. We’re face-to-face with people, caring for them, nearly all the time. Many healthcare assistants are like me – they don’t know that education is for them too; or how to go about accessing it.

“The language of healthcare is very academic. But the vast majority of healthcare assistants haven’t, for whatever reason, achieved academically in their lives. And yet there are thousands of healthcare assistants with all kinds of skills, experience and insights from other jobs – the health service should find ways to channel that resource.

“Every healthcare assistant should have a mentor, to encourage, persuade and help create independent thinkers and have access to forums where they feel comfortable to have their say and discuss issues.

“Once you’ve had a taste of learning, you want to learn more. Studies show that, for every pound an employer spends on educating staff, they get seven times that value back. We have to challenge the perception that healthcare assistants are at the bottom of the ladder in status because I believe we’re absolutely worth our weight in gold.”

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