Keeping connected with your team is key to delivering great care | Anthony Clarkson

Anthony Clarkson

Anthony Clarkson of NHS Blood and Transplant, reflects on the critical service they provide and how he and his team make it work to deliver such important care.

As leaders in the NHS, perhaps our greatest challenge is to balance the competing priorities of achieving consistently challenging targets and providing excellent leadership to our teams, or does, in fact, the latter result in the former? As the interim director and chief nurse for organ donation and transplantation, I lead a dedicated and diverse team who is responsible for facilitating organ donation across the UK through a 365 and 24/7 service. For this life-saving work, the team includes highly trained specialist nurses for organ donation and medical, administrative and scientific colleagues. Together, they care for donors and their families and patients and their families. To lead such a team is both a privilege and a challenge and one I am grateful for the opportunity to reflect upon within the parameters of this blog.

As healthcare leaders, we are all acutely aware that our personal goals of providing the best possible care and treatment for patients and service users who are counting on us to do this, may seem a million miles away from the dry financial or output-driven ambitions we are set. For us achieving targets, directly or indirectly, means delivering patient care and making a difference in people’s lives. In organ donation and transplantation, my targets are literally about lives saved. Every organ donor can save up to nine people, so we know that our work brings life and hope to all those who require an organ transplant and, crucially, brings some comfort to the donors’ family, who feel something positive has come from a tragic situation. For this reason, my passion for what I do has never faltered and I consider a key part of my role is to share that with my team.

I spend a great deal of time travelling the UK, Virgin trains are pretty much my office. The reason is that I believe providing open and accessible leadership is essential to the morale and performance of the team. I am acutely aware that with all the will in the world I can never meet everyone in a team spread across the UK, working shifts and frequently based in trusts and boards supporting organ donation. Because of this, the opportunities offered by our increasingly technological workplace are vital for me. I blog regularly on our internal website, have virtual open-door sessions, tweet and yammer and chair a monthly directorate-wide ‘Team Talk’ call. These activities, while time consuming, are worth the effort; they provide me with opportunities to take the pulse of my team, hear from colleagues and learn in a way that I never would if I were a more remote leader.

In every NHS team there are a wealth of ideas that can help us to work smarter, more efficiently and provide better care. The ambition has to be to provide every colleague with the support and confidence to allow them to articulate these ideas and know that they will be listened to, taken seriously and, vitally, given acknowledgment. By ensuring we maintain front line contacts through back-to-the-floor and team visits, we can let our teams know that our aim is to empower them to share all aspects of their daily experience, be that good or bad, in the hope that we can work together to deliver improvements.

Some time ago our specialist nurses explained that they felt their role was no longer working optimally for them or for those they were caring for. They facilitated the entire complex organ donation pathway, encompassing clinical, pastoral, organisational and technological duties over a period that frequently lasted over 24 hours. This feedback led directly to the creation of a workforce review which formally appraised options for improving our service, developed through extensive engagement. The result was the creation of a brand new nursing role with bespoke training resulting in improved work-life balance and enhancing our support for organ donor families. The creation of the specialist requester role was for me the definition of team working: mutual trust and open dialogue, allowing managers and front-line colleagues to determine together a better way forward for the service we all care about.

Performance in organ donation is a constant challenge. We are perhaps more than any other part of the NHS dependent upon our healthcare colleagues to collaborate with us to identify potential organ donors and to work alongside us in their workplace to support a family in making end of life decisions about donation. We do all we can to promote organ donation with our nurses embedded into hospitals working to spread the message, put systems in place, build relationships and explain the benefits of donation for all involved. We are all constantly grateful for the support we receive from our NHS colleagues. But while three people die every day waiting for an organ transplant, we cannot rest on our laurels. Please, if you have the opportunity to support organ donation in your workplace do so. There is no greater gift we can give than life itself and that is what organ donation is all about… supporting someone’s decision to save the lives of others, as their life comes to an end.

And what, you may well ask, has bought upon this period of reflection and the opportunity to share it via this blog? Well, last week I had the honour to win the HSJ Clinical Leader of the Year award. It is truly an honour and a pleasure to receive such an accolade, but amid the many happy memories two things stand out for me and make this incredibly special. Firstly, I was nominated by one of my own team, and that nomination was supported by colleagues from the front line to the boardroom, a fact I am deeply proud of. Secondly, after winning I was lucky enough to receive messages from all manner of people and places offering congratulations. None will stay with me like the messages from donor families thanking me for the care their family member received and, incredibly, from people on the transplant waiting list who are waiting for their life-saving transplant yet took the time to send me a message. We have not helped these incredible people yet, but with my brilliant team and the help of NHS colleagues, I know we will.

Anthony Clarkson is interim director of organ donation and transplantation at NHS Blood and Transplant. Follow them on Twitter @NHSBT

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