Harnessing the potential of AHP leaders

Physios are a vital force for good in the NHS, but need more help to secure leadership roles, says Dr Joanne Fillingham

Allied Health Professionals (AHPs) are the third largest workforce in the NHS. They practise in most clinical pathways and across organisational boundaries at all stages of the patient journey, providing solution-focused, goal-centred care to promote independence and autonomy. However, I believe the contribution of AHPs, including physios, to leading on better outcomes are often poorly understood, resulting in missed opportunities to support the transformation of health and care.

Like all clinicians, AHPs will be most effective in delivering and improving healthcare if there is sufficient strategic, professional, clinical and operational leadership to maximise their contribution to quality and productivity. 

It isn’t possible for everyone to know the range of skills these professions can offer across healthcare and the wider system and the impact they can make. But every NHS trust, or other healthcare organisation, should have someone who does – whether it is a director of AHPs or the chief AHP – and who is responsible for the overarching leadership for AHPs. 

Early this year, NHS Improvement published Leadership for Allied Health Professions: What Exists and What Matters, a summary of the findings of an academic evaluation and a self-assessment for trust boards, to support the identification of opportunities, gaps and risks regarding their current AHP leadership arrangements. 

The evaluation evidences the significant variation in AHP leadership that exists and the organisational and system challenges this causes. For the first time we have a clear indication that trusts that have appointed to strategic AHP leadership roles are engaging their AHPs more actively in improvement and are more visibly evidencing new ways of working that improve quality, productivity and, ultimately, organisation and system sustainability. 

To get more AHP leaders, all NHS trusts and healthcare systems should consider appointing a senior AHP with a strategic focus – this can unlock AHPs’ broad relationship-building, influencing and engagement skills to help an organisation achieve its priorities. 

Trusts should also seek to use the AHP workforce’s transformative potential for progressing and implementing new care pathways to improve quality and productivity. Senior AHPs should demonstrate that the professions are valued, and communicate board business to and from AHPs to deliver trust priorities. 

Recruiting more AHPs into leadership roles would also help with the national ambition of increasing the proportion of NHS organisations’ boards with members who have a clinical background. 

The NHS is developing a long-term plan to ensure its sustainability, and to tackle the challenges of an ageing population and increasing demand. So, I ask that we believe in AHPs and ensure that they play a key part in leading implementation of the plan. 

  • Dr Joanne Fillingham is clinical director Allied Health Professions at NHS Improvement

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