After 30 years as a neuro physio and trade union activist Ruth Jones took the path of politics. She explains to Gary Henson the link between government and physiotherapy and why members should influence MPs who are making policy
Why did you go into physiotherapy?
I read ‘Sue Barton, physiotherapist’ and thought oh gosh this is great, they put people’s hands in wax baths, that would be fabulous and sounds really easy. And I’ve never used a wax bath ever since…So at 13 I wanted to be a physio and that was great because obviously lots of people didn’t have a clue what they wanted to be. I trained at the Heath hospital in Cardiff.
What kept you committed to physio?
It was the thought of being able to help and empower people. With physios, more than say medics or pharmacists, bang, you’re there with the patient, with the client, and you can see what’s going on. You’re part of their journey. There were never two days the same, each patient and their family was different. I treated the Parkinson’s patient with their family and the stroke patient with theirs, so you got to know them and their circumstances. You learn so much from your patients and you never stop learning, that’s the important thing. There was one particular lady who had a very dense stroke, and we were saying “Come on, Margaret, let’s get you walking’ and she just didn’t engage with the goals we set her. Then we got her home and she turned to me, and said “Now I want to walk’ and she got on with her rehab.
It should have been her setting the goals not us, so that taught me; you have no right to set other people’s goals, you find out what their goals are and that’s when you can work with them proper.
How has your career as a physio prepared you for Westminster?
As a physio you’re always advocating for patients – if there’s a child living in mouldy housing, who has asthma, you write to the council. But if somebody’s in a terrible environment, no matter how good your therapy is, if they keep going back to that environment you’re not helping, you need to get everything better.
Or you need to get them out to the park, or make sure cardiac rehab isn’t 400 metres down the corridor. Physios always advocate for people at every stage – thinking about the patient and the journey.
Any connection between your trade union history and current role as shadow natural environment and air quality minister?
Air quality stuff is very important to me. As a physio, dealing with people with asthma and COPD who are affected so adversely by poor air – it’s one of my big drivers. Everyone has a right to breathe clean air. It shouldn’t be a postcode lottery – you should be able to go outside any day of the year regardless of where you live.
I’ve gained more knowledge, you can see the map of where poor air quality is and, obviously, it changes depending on the weather and things like motorways and factory emissions. But it is true that the poorer people in our society live in the worst air quality areas and that’s not fair, it needs changing.
Any inspiring mentors or colleagues?
Loads. Diane Rogers in Cardiff pushing to the forefront of treatment of children with cystic fibrosis and, of course, now they live into adulthood, which is brilliant. In Rookwood hospital, where I did spinal injuries, brilliant physios and managers like Kathryn Delpak, Eirian Ricketts – brilliant leaders who showed that physios on the ground should also be leading.
The inspirational, brilliant Tess James in Dorchester; her paediatric training set me on the path for children’s services.
Her relationship with the medical staff and her ability to work in the hospital but also outside in the community, her gentle, but firm approach and the way she got things done by going about things calmly, so she could change the doctors’ minds, because in those days we weren’t hand maidens, absolutely not, but we didn’t have the equality that we do now. She was at the forefront of getting that equality.
Other changes that you’ve seen in physiotherapy?
The move to the autonomous practitioner, taking the assessments, the initial assessments, diagnosis and treatment. Because when I first started that wasn’t the way we worked, so it was good to see that change because obviously physios are quite capable, we see the triaging they do nowadays, working on the frontline in A&E things like that, which is really important.
Because in terms of prudent healthcare, we should have the right person, seeing the right patient, in the right place at the right time, and often that should be a physio rather than a doctor.
As a physio, dealing with people with asthma and COPD who are affected so adversely by poor air – it’s one of my big drivers.
What inspired you to become involved in the trade union?
My dad was a big trade unionist, a workplace rep at Avery, the weighing scales manufacturer. He became a foreman and a site manager but was always involved in the union, talking about terms and conditions and pay. The union was my route in to the Labour party. My dad showed me the value of being in a union, of co-operation, teamwork, collaboration, how to work together.
What are the benefits to a member of becoming a union rep?
The camaraderie at reps’ meeting, sharing problems and solutions was really useful and it helped me as a physio. I built transferable skills in negotiation, consultation, being able to chair meetings, which is quite a skill in itself. If you, as a trade union rep, don’t communicate, then you fall apart anyway so communication is key, absolutely.
How are physios seen within the trade union movement?
Practical, pragmatic, constructive, because we‘re not the first to down tools and walk out; we will say okay where do we want to be, how do we get there? If you can’t get there that route, what about this route, you know, there are different ways to get to where you want to be without selling your members short.
Physios are very reasonable people and they can see the bigger picture. It’s very rare that you see physios get really angry. Pensions was one thing, and I remember being involved in strike action then and the physios weren’t just doing it for themselves, they were doing it for the next generation as well, so they were always thinking ahead for the next people coming through and I thought yeah, we have to protect. I think we had integrity and were very clear on what we wanted. We didn’t get it all but we got something.
And other benefits of having more physios in leadership roles?
Hopefully you’re getting clinicians who’ve actually treated patients. Having a clinician in a leadership role is a good model and it demonstrates you are taking patients seriously.
What changes to health policy would you like to see to improve access to physiotherapy?
Open access is something I’ve always pushed for at all levels, including allowing children’s services to be freely accessible from a walk-in point of view. I still don’t see why if somebody comes to a children’s service and wants help there shouldn’t be some way of providing that help – if it’s appropriate.
I think physios have got such great range of skills, you know if it’s not me in children’s services then it may be somebody else over there, in the learning disability team, or whatever.
Children’s services might be overwhelmed if everybody on the street walked in and said “Oh, I want help with my little one’s walking”. But in terms of health provision, you’ve got to talk about funding and where you’re seeing patients, because seeing them in the clinical hospital is lovely but that’s not real. When the family goes home if they can’t transfer what you’ve just done with them to the home situation, then you’ve wasted your time. That’s probably the biggest thing.
Cardiac rehab should be in the community, it shouldn’t be in a hospital.
Physios have shown that they’re particularly resilient in that they’ve been able to go in to different roles during the pandemic and work for the benefits of society, as well as for patients.
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