Placements don’t just provide benefits for students, as Improvement Advisor Lynn Flannigan found out when she and Focus on Dementia colleague Stephen Lithgow supported Healthcare Improvement Scotland’s first ever Allied Health Professional student placements recently.

As a registered Allied Health Professional (AHP), I have a responsibility to support practice-based learning. That didn’t stop me feeling just a little apprehensive when my colleague Stephen Lithgow and I – both of us from our organisation’s Focus on Dementia team – were the first AHPs in the organisation to supervise a project placement for two MSc physiotherapy students.

It had been a long held ambition of June Wylie, our Allied Health Professional (AHP) Lead, that Healthcare Improvement Scotland would support AHP student placements. For the past few years June and a small working group of AHPs in the organisation have been working with Pete Glover from NHS Education for Scotland (NES) and Dougie Lachlan Glasgow Caledonian University to bring this into fruition. In October last year, our first two students joined us for a four-week virtual placement.

Learning together

Once they joined us, it was not surprising to find out that our two students, Laura and Shelagh, were just as apprehensive as we were. For them, as physiotherapy students, it was nervousness at being on a placement that wasn’t clinical. For us, it was more about how we could make a placement effective when it was being conducted virtually, as well as how much time it might take on top of the day job. On top of that, for Stephen as an Occupational Therapist, it was whether supervising students from a different profession would work.

To mitigate this, we decided to adopt a 2:2 model of placement so that the two practice educators (Stephen and I) could support each other, and Laura and Shelagh could also support each other. We provided them with a project brief around involving carers in dementia care. The brief specified what outputs were expected and what learning outcomes we hoped to cover. A range of tutorials and interviews with stakeholders were set up in advance for the students which covered topics such as quality improvement methodology, dementia, physiotherapy contribution to dementia and involving carers.

Given the virtual, project-based nature of the placement, we had to give consideration to how Laura and Shelagh could achieve their learning outcomes in order to fulfill University standards.  This included subject matter specific teach-back sessions, a case study example, a hypothetical physiotherapy quality improvement project and an evidence summary of their learning.

Making it work

While our initial concern was that trying to support placements virtually would be harder on all of us, in many ways the online technology such as MS Teams provided great benefits. We could link in with Laura and Shelagh daily for short sessions, and they could access a range of staff from across Healthcare Improvement Scotland, wider stakeholder and carers, which gave them a real breadth of experience.

Where we did have a challenge was around the assessment forms, which were still designed for clinical placements. We got round it by creating a case study based on the experience of a person living with dementia during the pandemic, and we built questions around that to help assess Laura and Shelagh’s clinical reasoning. Laura and Shelagh provided us with really positive feedback about how the placement helped them gain an understanding of dementia, physiotherapy interventions, specific issues relating to informal carers for people with dementia, and the QI methodology. We were able to observe their learning develop around quality improvement and how to use tools such as aim statements, driver diagrams and logic models. I think they will take that quality improvement experience with them and incorporate it into their future clinical practice – very few students get that kind of experience.

Everyone’s a winner

From Stephen and I’s perspective, we didn’t feel the placements were too onerous in terms of  time, especially as we had so many willing volunteers from across the organisation to help out! For us as practice educators, it also helped support our on-going professional registration, refresh our supervision skills and our subject matter knowledge and skills.

For Healthcare Improvement Scotland more widely, the four weeks we spent working with Laura and Shelagh has tested the concept of student placements within the organisation, and now we plan to expand placement to other AHP groups and nursing colleagues are developing models to support nursing placements. The vision is that all AHPs within the organisation will support student placements and education in some way in future, and we hope to explore other models such as split placements with NHS Boards clinical sites and other national bodies. Providing student placements for AHPs brings so many benefits, including building quality improvement capacity and capability within our future health and social care workforce, raising awareness of non-traditional career pathways for AHPs and enabling AHPs in our organisation to maintain their registration and supervision skills.

It was great to dust off the cobwebs and be supporting students again. It was a very rewarding experience which Stephen and I would fully recommend.

Lynn Flannigan is Improvement Advisor with the Focus on Dementia Team of Healthcare Improvement Scotland.

More information

Visit the ihub website for more information our Focus on Dementia work.