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OTs can help relieve the pressure

Winter will always be a busy time for hospitals. However, when it comes to relieving pressure on over-stretched doctors and nurses, more and more health experts are highlighting the vital role that can be played by occupational therapists.

It may have been one of the mildest winters on record. But with our ageing population and more people living with serious long-term conditions, the challenge of extra pressures on hospitals during the winter months remains a significant issue. Demand has increased dramatically over the last decade or so, with a 35% increase in hospital admissions between the winters of 2002/3 and 2012/13. To add to the problem, there has also been a continuous rise in urgent readmissions.

Along with physiotherapists, occupational therapists can play a vital role in helping people get out of hospital quicker or avoid being admitted in the first place, relieving pressure on resources and saving the NHS money. "If you talk about care closer to home, then OTs are right on the front line," said Richard Humphries of the King's Fund in an interview with the Guardian in January 2015. "They may only be a tiny percentage of the health and care workforce, but they punch well above their weight in terms of their impact on people's lives."

Occupational therapists are increasingly being employed in hospital A&E departments, playing a key role in rehabilitation as part of a multi-disciplinary team. They also link with community and social care services to help prevent unnecessary admissions to acute care wards. Research published in 2014 showed significant benefits to a number of NHS trusts, including Royal Gwent and Nevill Hall hospitals who reported that the use of OTs had prevented admissions for between 50 and 60% of referrals.

Occupational therapists can help coordinate a response from other health professionals, connecting a CAMHS Nurse, a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist and even those in more specialised psychology jobs across multiple patients for an efficient and effective regime of treatments.

In January this year, the NHS Gloucestershire Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) revealed a number of initiatives it had taken to tackle winter pressures, including providing increased access to reablement and home care staff.

The CCG's Clinical Lead for Urgent Care, Dr Caroline Bennett, commented, "Great efforts are being made to ensure that patients in need of emergency care are seen as quickly as possible and that effective arrangements are in place to support people to leave hospital in a safe and timely way when they are fit to do so. This is the responsibility of the whole NHS and Social Care community and we are also working positively together to support people in their own homes and in the community to avoid the need for a hospital stay wherever possible."

High-level commitment

The Government and NHS England are clearly aware of the important contribution that allied heath professionals such as occupational therapists can make to the fight against winter pressures. As well as providing tactical funding for recruitment, they work closely with trusts to put in place robust workforce planning and are committed to forging closer links between health and social care, as part of the major NHS reform kick-started by the Health and Social Care Act 2012. This means there are increasing job opportunities for occupational therapists, particularly those who are prepared to work on short-term or temporary contracts.

"The complete solution will not lie within the health system, " is the conclusion of a recent BMA briefing paper. "In order to truly manage winter pressures, we will need to tackle wider public health issues, such as keeping our elderly and vulnerable warm in winter, keeping them well fed, keeping them mobile and ensuring adequate social care."

There seems little doubt that one group of NHS professionals has a vital role to play in this: our 30,000-strong workforce of occupational therapists.

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