I was still working as a GP pharmacist in North Cardiff when a colleague in the local health board forwarded an email to me. For the first time, there was some funding available from Health Education and Improvement Wales (HEIW) for practice-based pharmacists to take advanced and extended practice courses.
I have had an interest in developing my digital skills throughout my career and advocated for the use of technology to increase efficiency and sustainability in the health service, with the ultimate goal of improving patient outcomes. So, it was no surprise that the MSc in ‘Digital Skills for the Health and Care Professions’ at the Lampeter campus of the University of Wales Trinity St David leapt off the page of the email.
At that time, I was looking for a change of direction in my career and thought that an extra qualification could help, so I applied to the course and was lucky enough to be selected.
I gave absolutely no mind to the fact that my latest foray into the world of academia was my pharmacy degree 27 years ago. This MSc was a three-year, part-time distance learning course with annual residential weekends. How hard could it be?
It was only when I went to the first residential weekend at the beginning of September 2021 that the magnitude of what I was undertaking began to hit me. I found that the course was much larger than I expected, with 67 people from across Wales and from all sectors of health and social care, including clinicians, pharmacists, social workers and project managers, taking the course with me.
At the dinner on the first evening, the minister of health gave a speech setting out the importance of the course and its place in shaping the digital future of health in Wales. Over the rest of the weekend, we were introduced to the academic staff whose names were an ‘A to Z’ of the great and the good of digital healthcare across the UK.
Although I was now beginning to feel seriously out of my depth, I was also aware of the fantastic opportunities this course would afford me, both from the final qualification and from the networking opportunities.
The first of these opportunities arose just a few weeks after the residential weekend, when I successfully interviewed to become the specialist clinical lead for the NHS 111 Wales website at the Welsh Ambulance Service Trust (WAST), where I am responsible for the clinical content of the NHS 111 Wales website and bringing improvements including new symptom checkers and improved signposting and information on available health services. This work has particularly involved increasing awareness of community pharmacy services in Wales and the important work they do in supporting patients especially during out of hours periods.
Taking the MSc meant I was better prepared for the interview because of the help and advice I received from other students and the academic staff. But also, after joining WAST at the start of 2022, it was clear that the skills and knowledge I have learned during this first year have already greatly contributed to my day-to-day work, giving me a real confidence in my new role.
For example, the course has helped me as I have crossed over from primary care into the urgent and emergency care sector and enabled me to see how the priorities of each sector can be best integrated into systems that are interoperable and deliver the services that patients need.
I have even undertaken the role of lead author on an academic paper that evaluates interventions made on the NHS 111 Wales website to guide people to access the most appropriate services. This has just undergone peer review and is due for publication in January 2023. This is not something I would have previously considered doing if it weren’t for the knowledge and confidence I have gained from my studies.
However, studying at master’s level should not be underestimated. It is a step up from undergraduate study, requiring a significant commitment both mentally and in time. The amount of reading, lectures, research, and writing has been both physically and intellectually demanding. But the rewards and potential benefits of the course greatly outweigh this, and there are a couple important takeaways from my learning journey so far that I think it is important to highlight.
First, I have found that peer support is invaluable. At the beginning of the year, we were divided into groups of between eight and ten people, each with a diverse mix of roles. This skill mix has helped with gaps in knowledge, technical assistance, general support and morale. There is real strength when you are connected to people who share your commitment and a common goal.
Second, I cannot overstate the importance of networking. During this year I have discovered what good digital leadership looks like and how important it is in shaping the future of the healthcare landscape.
The people enrolled on this course are the future digital healthcare leaders in Wales and the network we have created will cultivate valuable relationships. We share the same vision and the contacts I have made will help me as I strive to reach my ambition of improving patient outcomes across Wales through our use of technology.
Mark Allen is specialist clinical lead for the NHS 111 Wales website.