Transforming general practice through volunteering

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Part of Volunteering in general practice

In a guest blog for our report on Volunteering in general practice, practice manager Kay Keane shares her experience of developing a community-centred approach at the Alvanley Family Practice through building a community of volunteers.

I’ve known for a long time that my ideal job is somewhere within walking distance from home, and where I could help to build a community. Lots of us live away from our families so communities are important. Shops, pubs, friends and clubs come and go, and it may only be places of worship and doctors’ surgeries that tend to stick with us long term. So the link between GP practices and communities is what attracted me to practice management; I knew it was a hard job, but since my very first role in general practice 25 years ago I have always wanted to go back and do things differently.

Alvanley Family Practice has really allowed me to do that. The leadership team often joke, ‘We don’t know how we found each other but we are glad we did!’  We are all built in the same way, we believe that wellbeing is as important as medicine for lots of our patients and that kindness is a key ingredient. 

We wanted to build a community or social movement with the practice at the centre. With an eye on the media we had seen that health-based social movements were a way that bottom-up change could happen. We started with social media and went from having a couple of people checking in to our Facebook page to now having an Alvanley Family Practice page with more than 900 people actively looking at our posts and features. This easy-to-access resource helped to create a pool of opinions and opportunities; an early winner was weekly health walks. A one-mile stroll once a week gave us the opportunity to meet our patients in a different setting and to talk to them about what mattered to them, not what was the matter with them. Whoever is working in the practice attends the walks, we really try to have clinicians and administrative staff walking side by side with our patients. To add to that we were always very vocal that you don’t have to be our patient to participate, we want our activities to be accessible to the community.  People bring their relatives and friends along and we often have visitors from across health and social care who walk with us.

Soon patients were agreeing with us that community and friendship were important. We wanted a way to capitalise on this so approached Altogether Better, who helped us to advertise for, recruit and coach a group of practice health champions who would work with us on those wellbeing activities that we couldn’t resource. We obtained funding from our public health team to set this up as a pilot site. Quite soon we had established a group of 20 patients who wanted to give something back to the NHS, and particularly to the GPs and staff who had been central in their good and bad times over the past 20 years or more. Hearing the stories of moments that staff had changed their lives was so powerful. Words that had been said that had triggered lifestyle changes, being given good news and bad; the GPs were often unaware of the impact of those moments for the patients.  These inspirational stories made us even more determined that we were going to make the practice special for all our patients.

Since we have had these volunteers, life as a practice manager just gets better and better and I am absolutely sure that the patients would agree. We had a comment on Facebook recently from one patient, 

Fantastic doctors and staff that we all love to bits. Their compassion and professional approach put you at ease straight away. I've had 3 doctors in my 70 years and they were all brilliant doctors, but then there's Alvanley; it has Family in the name – that’s the difference.

Patients work with us to develop services; from a ‘flu hot seat’ (as well as having flu clinics we have a ‘hot seat’ that can be accessed by any patient between 9am and 12 noon and they are guaranteed to have their flu jab within 20 minutes. It has worked brilliantly for our patients) to a monthly singing for health session, our ideas and theirs are joined to create a social movement that we could only have dreamt of.  When the champions first joined us they all said that they had nothing to give – but actually they each have unique skills and experiences that make working with them a joy. From someone who used to work in the print industry who has helped us design a wellbeing prescription to a gardener who has secured and helped to set up a practice allotment, they are all people who have so much to give to us and to the community but just needed the right vehicle to do so.

These developments have given our clinical team options. They don’t have to write a prescription for medication, they can recommend a host of activities from our wellbeing prescription, from IT training to coffee and conversation. 

People now talk about Alvanley Family Practice in a positive way. They are no longer saying to their friends, ‘I can never get an appointment,’ now they say, ‘Doesn’t your practice have a veg on prescription scheme?’ It’s a wonderful and empowering change and one that we are all proud to be part of. We think we have got something for everyone and we are constantly tweaking and developing ideas. Next on the list is ‘feed the birds’ with our local RSPB and some of our isolated patients; we are capitalising on the skills of our volunteers and the needs of our community. We know the people in Werneth are hardworking, resilient and caring; we want to make sure that it continues to be a great place to live and work. Our practice health champions are making the difference in planning, promoting and inspiring that.


Monica Mehers

PPG Bicester Health Centre
Comment date
15 February 2018

Really interesting take on helping each other to improve health. Will certainly propose some of thes ideas to our PPG.

Eleanor Lines

Publisher, retired,
Comment date
09 February 2018

What a wonderful description of how walking, talking, gardening, singing and feeding the birds can transform the quality of today’s busy healthcare. I’m not sure where this practice is, but imagine that city practices could usefully add cooking skills/ growing veg and accessing fresh food on a budget. And talks on family problems/ mental health might well relieve much stress and GP workload?
Good point that GP practices are now one of v few lasting landmarks in our communities - and even they are combing and changing, meaning reaching out to the community via volunteers is even more important.

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