Stacey Keegan, who has been confirmed as permanent chief executive of the Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopedic Hospital, says trusts across the country are grappling with staff recruitment and retention, as well as a backlog of blocked surgeries.
But he said the specialist hospital, in Gobowen, near Oswestry, had reduced waits from two years to just a handful and said he was making very good progress on the 78-week wait.
The chief executive emphasized that the reduction in waiting lists was being done on the basis of clinical need, regardless of the different waiting time targets for England and Wales.
“A patient is a patient regardless of where they live,” he said.
“Our staff have done incredibly well, but realistically it will take a few years to reduce the backlog, which has thankfully plateaued.”
The chief executive, who took over the interim role in March 2021, just four months after arriving as director of nursing, praised the staff for stepping up “phenomenally” during the pandemic and since.
However, he said that for specialist hospitals like the RJAH, recovering from Covid was going to be more difficult than dealing with the pandemic.
“Covid is still with us and 1.2 percent of current staff illnesses are Covid related,” he said.
“Now we have to deal with the delay of the surgery in the midst of hiring vacancies and retaining our staff.”
The hospital currently has seven openings for anesthetists, reflecting the national landscape, and has recruitment drives across the board.
“The cost of living is having an effect. We’ve had healthcare workers leave us to take better paying jobs in supermarkets, with more flexibility. We can give what’s in our gift to offer in terms of flexibility and we’ve been doing which we can help with cost of living but wages are set by the NHS.
“Those staff members who were due to retire stepped up to stay on the job during Covid and are now resigning.”
Stacey said the hospital was also exploring ways to expand its physical capacity so it could do more operations.
“We may be able to grow the facility, but we still need to have the workforce. We’re bringing in innovative changes, like nurse practitioner anesthetists, and we’re always looking for ways to make things better.”
Stacey said her own promotion to interim CEO after four months in the hospital had been a baptism of fire. She has now accepted the permanent position, but she is still determined to keep her roots as a nurse.
“I still do a clinical shift once a month. There’s nothing better than putting my uniform back on and doing what I love to do the most, nursing,” she said.
“I am determined that this is not a ‘top down’ organization, so it is very important to talk to staff while doing a shift with them (making beds or helping patients).
“If you have ideas about what we can do better, we want to hear from you.”
Stacey says that nursing training has given her her motto throughout her career: keeping people safe. And she’s one that she retains in the CEO role of hers.
She is full of praise for the way staff and the public have reacted to the pandemic.
“There was always a staff member knocking on my door asking how they could help and many of the innovations the staff came up with to cope with the changes that we still see today.”
Those include virtual physio and other appointments.
“They’re not for everyone, but for many, including those who would have to give up a day of work to travel to us for an appointment, they’re a game changer.”
Similarly, those awaiting operations such as hip and knee replacements can now log into an app that gives them access to support and advice from physiotherapists and other staff. It also helps them keep track of suggested exercises and ways to stay fit.
“They can also use it post-op to help chart your recovery so they can contact us.
“We just launched the app and the uptake has been incredible. It’s kind of like a security blanket for patients.”
With wait times for operations increasing during the pandemic, Stacey says the hospital is keen to reassure patients that they have not been forgotten.
“We send periodic letters giving updates to patients to make sure they know we’re doing our best and we haven’t forgotten them.”