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Alex removes barriers to life at home for patients in virtual ward at Aberdare GP practice

Patients at an Aberdare GP practice can access specialist help to continue to live at home thanks to the appointment of occupational therapist Alex Gigg.

Alex, who has 12 years experience in the profession, started at St John’s Medical Practice in April as part of a 12 month trial from the Primary Care Support Unit.

So far he has taken on 39 cases of mainly elderly or frail patients who need his help to tackle some of the difficulties they face in everyday life.

He is the first occupational therapist to work with a GP Practice within the Cwm Taf University Health Board area, to test an innovative approach to dealing with its casework.

“I work with adults that have functional difficulties within their own environment and look at strategies with them to help manage the things that they find problematic,” Alex said.

That can include people who have recurrent falls, or difficulties managing daily tasks in the home that may require equipment or suitable services to aid their independence. It has also included factors such as bereavement, anxiety and low mood, ensuring people have the support they need from the most appropriate person.

“I seek to enable people to be as independent as possible and to provide the most appropriate intervention by responding quickly to the needs identified at the GP practice,” Alex said.

Patients, who may otherwise have waited on the waiting lists of other services for an assessment, now receive timely assessments and referrals.  The role can reduce admissions to hospital, or support those just discharged from hospital and ensure safety on their return home.

Alex receives referrals from a multi-disciplinary team of staff at the practice and is hoping his post will continue to take some of the workload pressures away from GPs.

Some patients he has been involved with now contact him when needs arise rather than the traditional request for a GP appointment when it is not a medical issue.

“Once people know they have got the ongoing support I can provide, they have reported feeling more at ease knowing they have a point of contact at the practice that can respond promptly.”

Alex is part of a new way of working at St John’s Medical Practice known as the ‘virtual ward’ – a team of about 10 staff, including a GP, district nurse, pharmacist, social worker, community paramedic, occupational therapist, manager and third sector services such as Care and Repair – all collaborating to take services to a patient and avoid a situation spiralling into crisis.

Manager Lynwen Francis said: “The virtual ward is a Multi Disciplinary Team which meets once a week to discuss sick or vulnerable patients. These patients may require a more intensive input from the Primary Care Team to avoid a hospital admission and to continue to live and function safely at home.  Our Virtual Ward Team responds rapidly to intervene and the turnaround from first input by a member of the team is normally no more than one week.  The aim would be to provide a cluster based virtual ward to the patients of the Cynon Valley.”

Lead clinician Dr Owen Thomas said: “All these initiatives free up GPs time to concentrate on the more complex medical cases and keeps patients out of hospital. The Virtual Ward bridges the gap between primary and secondary care. It targets a team and resources at the most vulnerable who are the most likely to have to go into hospital or become very sick.”

Photo: Alex Gigg with St John’s GP Marianne Embrey.