A practice doing things differently in Gateshead

This is my life now. I used to visit my GP twice a day, but now they wonder where I am!
— Tee

“Practice Health Champions are making a tangible difference to this practice and the GPs who work within it.”

So says Sheinaz Stansfield, Practice Manager at Gateshead’s Oxford Terrace & Rawling Road Medical Group. Sheinaz is a passionate advocate for Practice Health Champions. She believes the traditional model of GP appointments needs radical change if it is to properly serve all patients. 

“I’ve been here for seven years and it’s always difficult to reach patients. Practice Health Champions have changed that. The staff are really motivated and we’re doing exciting things, things that interest our patients.”

These activities include a Tea Dance, which combined health information with entertainment; a Christmas Dinner catering for 26 vulnerable people who would otherwise have been alone on Christmas Day and a Flu Fair.

Sheinaz said, “When people get their flu jab, they’re also informed about self-care and supportive organisations such as Age UK. They’re encouraged to turn to the community rather than their GP.”

The success of these events from a practical and an outreach perspective means there is no going back, she said: “With austerity measures kicking in, services such as out-of-hours mental health support are closing. People are coming to us with their well-being needs. They’ve nowhere else to go.”

Dr Caroline Snell, GP, admits to initial reservations about Practice Health Champions but is now supportive. 

“I wondered how many patients would be interested because it’s a huge commitment. But it’s been a success. My regular patients have had great support and they’re coming to see me less and less.

I now have options for signposting people, especially those with mental health problems. We have groups for befrienders, knitters, readers…all run by champions. With lack of resources and, increasingly, lack of GPs, we have to encourage self-care. I think other GP’s will take the scheme on board.”

One of those groups – a Craft Club – meets weekly at a local clubhouse. Practice Health Champion, Linda, helps to run it. She said: “We do crafts but really it’s about friendship. Our members want to be recognised as people. When you’re sitting at home, dwelling on problems, you blow them out of proportion. Or you ignore them.”

Susan became a champion because of the lack of emotional support during her own personal trauma. She said: “We need more than the NHS can provide. I had two children at home but I didn’t want to worry them, sometimes it’s easier to talk to strangers.”

Margaret regularly attends Craft Club, she said: “It’s something to look forward to, something to talk about. It’s not just for women, men come too. Every doctor’s practice should have one. Some people go to the doctor because they just need to talk.”

A fellow-member agrees: “I never used to go anywhere, never had any conversation. If this group didn’t exist, I’d just sit at home.”

Practice Health Champions also see benefits for themselves. Linda says, “When I go to bed, I feel like I’ve achieved something worthwhile.” And Susan said: “Helping other people helps me cope with the fact that I had no support.”

Becoming a Practice Health Champion has been life changing for Tee, who has Schizophrenia. She is a trained nurse but had to leave her profession. She said: “I’ve helped with the Flu Fair and cooked the Christmas dinner, it’s been amazing. This is my life now. I used to visit my GP twice a day, but now they wonder where I am!”