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The importance of AHPs in mental health, learning disability and autism

19 October 2023

Clinical fellowships within Allied Health Professions (AHPs) play a vital role in improving mental health settings for the wider workforce. 

Last week, people across England celebrated World Mental Health Day and AHPs Day; we took this opportunity to speak to Carly Atkinson, the Workforce, Training and Education AHP Clinical Fellow for Mental Health, Learning Disability and Autism to hear her understanding of the importance and impact of these fellowships.

Carly AtkinsonReflections of a clinical fellowship: Carly Atkinson.

In September 2021, I joined the South West Mental Health programme team with NHS England (NHSE) (the former Health Education England element of the organisation) in a fellowship role to provide clinical allied health professional expertise.

During my two years in the post, I have seen the added value clinical fellows bring to regional programme teams. It was recognised that workforce transformation within mental health services was key to meeting the objectives of the NHS Long Term Plan, but there was a limited understanding of how AHPs might play a role in this.

Co-production for better services

The first point is an obvious one, co-producing training, funding offers, guidance documents and project development initiatives with those who are accessing that training, considering funding, following the guidance, or delivering that project, will lead to improved, more accessible offers which meet the needs of the workforce. 

During my fellowship I was involved, to various degrees, in the development of many documents and training initiatives, ensuring they met the diverse clinical audience's requirements. These guidance documents need to understand the workforce and how they keep our patients safe in practice. Involving clinical fellows allows for this to happen.    

Awareness raising and influencing

During the fellowship, I was invited to present and share expertise and insights at various events and virtual platforms, ensuring this didn’t conflict with clinical commitments. These opportunities helped disseminate knowledge and inspire careers in mental health to AHP students in the region, such as the Student Roadshow.

The Student Roadshow co-production team were able to access the necessary resources that enabled our message of ‘inspiring careers in mental healthcare’ to reach an audience far beyond those 181 students who attended a workshop. 

Project delivery through existing relationships

I firmly believe that existing clinical relationships provided a benefit when it came to realising the projects undertaken during the fellowship. With these existing connections, I was able to successfully pilot a non-traditional split placement, create educational content and disseminate surveys. 

I learnt a lot of very helpful theories in relation to project management during my fellowship, but when we were asking clinical colleagues to go the extra mile to help, I think having an established and respected clinical working relationship with them made a huge difference to engagement and ultimately, the successes of the projects.

Understanding workforce equity and impact 

AHPs represent a small percentage of the workforce in mental health services, a small but critical role. When we talk about impending workforce challenges, we tend to focus on the big numbers. Vacancies for mental health nursing in our region are in the hundreds. This has a huge impact on patient care and our attention to workforce interventions can be immediately drawn. 

However, it is important not to lose sight that although there are only 5 inpatient eating disorders dietitians in the whole region, not one eating disorders patient within those units can be safely refed if those roles are not filled. Clinical fellows inform workforce planners and strategic programme teams of this and being part of future planning fosters inclusive workforce-informed enablement and transformation.

Development and dissemination

With the new capabilities developed as a fellow, many will use the role as a stepping stone to move on to new leadership opportunities and improve healthcare systems. I have chosen to return to clinical practice because I continue to love clinical practice. 

The insights I have gained from this role will allow me to understand and bring about better system working. I have the confidence to reach out and challenge commissioners, knowledge of career progression opportunities, recruitment strategies and upskilling initiatives that I can make my colleagues aware of to ensure these valuable projects, information and support reach the people we intend them to. 

Dissemination where it matters is often the hardest part of our work. Fellows are a great way to make this happen, joining the dots between strategic plans, operational implementation and real change.

To conclude, the role of a clinical fellowship in AHP roles has been acknowledged by colleagues and played a vital role in strengthening collaborative working, to help deliver the best patient care. I have been fortunate to have been welcomed by my NHSE colleagues with open arms and the value made by fellows should be encouraged and continued to improve partnership working, and ultimately healthcare outcomes, going forward. 

If you would like to learn more, please contact england.ahpwte.sw@nhs.net.