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The Business of Healthcare | An interview with Helen Hutchings

Helen Hutchings has worked in the field of healthcare for 11 years - first as a Practice Manager, then moved into Medway Practices Alliance GP Federation, where she is the Director of Operations.

Before moving into primary care, Helen had more than 25 years’ experience in retail management. I was interested to know how she reinvented her career and what skills she’s had to develop along the way to make it all possible.

How did you get the job as a Practice Manager?

Helen: I decided I’d done my stint in retail and wanted a new career doing something different. I did a short training course into medical terminology to get a feel of whether it’s something I wanted to do. Then I got a job as Deputy Practice Manager in Maidstone. Within seven months, I went for a Practice Manager position for a larger surgery in Medway. I was there for five years and then moved to Court View Surgery and spent five years with them before taking the job with Medway Practices Alliance.

Do you view your organisation as a business? If so, who are your customers?

Helen: Yes, it is a business. At Medway Practices Alliance our customers are our practices, GPs and clinical colleagues and other providers such as Medway Community Healthcare and other leaders in the business.

Do you think your practices see the federation as a business?

Helen: I think some people would. I’m not sure if everybody within general practice understands the federation fully. But, yes, some people do see us as a business. Some people see us as an organisation; we are there to support GP Practices, we see ourselves as an extension of general practice.

What kinds of activities do you do in a typical week?

Helen: I’ll be working with our Primary Care Hub team to ensure the Improved Access Hubs are running smoothly, managing the team, policies and procedures and recruitment. I am the CQC registered manager and IG lead so review the KLOE’s to ensure compliance, carry out audits at the hubs to ensure IG compliance. I attend regular meetings with our Head Office Team to look at new business opportunities and meet with practices to discuss the Improved Access Scheme such as usage of appointments and speak to them about what support they need.

I make sure they’re utilising appointments in the hubs and getting signed up to Lantum, a new workforce platform we’ve been rolling out.

Other than that, I spend time dealing with day to day queries from practices, payroll, NHS Pensions, invoice payments and looking at new opportunities to develop the federation.

I have a great team that works really well together. At the moment, we’ve got ten reception staff, a Primary Care Hub Coordinator, another coordinator starting soon; I have an Operations Manager to assist me and a part-time office administrator. I also work alongside our Chief Operating Officer.

Do you find it hard recruiting?

Helen: It is really important to recruit the right person to then create a really good team who can work well together. It’s something I enjoy doing. When you’re in a general practice, you look at what your needs are. If someone leaves, you decide whether you need someone full time or part-time. Or you think about whether you need to change the role.

Since I started, over a period of time some roles have evolved. When I looked at what we needed to achieve and the skill set of our team, I realised we didn’t have enough manpower so looked at skills and support we actually needed.

Do you try to get a couple of steps ahead with your recruitment, or does your funding not allow that?

Helen: Yes, we do look very carefully at affordability and the needs of the business. We got funding from the improved access scheme so I’ve looked very carefully at what we can afford to ensure that it’s not going to put a big hole into the finances. We discussed this as a small team and then took it to the board and said: ‘this is where we are at, what we need to do, and therefore this is our proposal’. We have a really good skill mix of GP’s, Nurse and Clinical Pharmacist on our board, they are very supportive.

What is your approach to recruitment?

Helen: I feel confident here, because of my management experience and I’m happy to recruit because it fits the needs of the business. I’ll be lying awake at silly o’clock in the morning reflecting and really ensuring we’re not taking people on for the sake of it but this is never the case – it’s what we need.

When I started in general practice, I didn’t have an Assistant Manager. So, I put a business case to the partners and explained I need a part-time Assistant Manager. I was clear about where I needed support and the partners honoured that. The person I recruited is now the practice manager taking over when I left. I’m very focused on people, development and succession planning.

What training have you done?

Helen: I had lots of training in my past retail career. It was very good, rounded training, because I worked in very big organisations such as Arcadia and Topshop. My last retail job was with the LEGO Company, helping to open stores in various parts of the world including California, Moscow as well as the UK. My induction for that was in Florida which was great!

I’ve had a lots management training, and training in disciplinary and grievance and employment law. I’ve kept my skills up to date in general practice by attending the necessary training for that role.

Have you ever had a mentor and what skills are you looking to improve?

Helen: I’ve not had a mentor in any formal sense. In my retail days I had some good mentors that I really looked up to who helped develop me over the years but not a formal mentor. In terms of improving my skills, I’m in a new role so always lots to learn. I am in the process of gaining knowledge on the CQC KLOE’s and Information Governance. We have support from MCH which is good to work with other business partners. Development on finance is another area I am looking to improve on.

What are the top three pressures that you encounter daily, and how do you manage them?

Helen: It’s hard to pinpoint any particular challenges, but it’s mainly demands from outside and the workload that you’re juggling. Sometimes it’s the inbox being overloaded with queries. As much as it’s a good thing, CQC inspection has a lot of workload related to it. The other thing is just the evolving nature of the NHS. We are trying to keep everything up to date and running, which is why we’re recruiting more staff.

Do you ever say no to things?

Helen: I’ve got better at saying no. We get asked to attend a lot of meetings, so I’m becoming more focused and saying: ‘do I need to be there, can someone else go, or do we need to go at all?’ I had a conference call with IT the other day about something they wanted me involved in. When they started talking about technical things I said: ‘you don’t need me now so I’m going to leave’. I have got better at saying no and not doing the stuff that isn’t a priority.

In conclusion: good focus equals great leadership

I really enjoyed talking to Helen and I was really struck by how she has developed to focus her attention and time in an effective way. Being decisive about your priorities, making the case for the staffing and resources you need, and learning to say no are all key elements of great leadership. The confidence to lead in this way comes with experience and I really think Helen’s career shows us how that experience can be really relevant and transferable across different sectors.

Tara Humphrey is the founder of THC Primary Care, a leading healthcare consultancy specialising in workforce transformation and the only consultancy to have worked with 11 Training Hubs across South London, Kent, Surrey and Sussex.

Tara and her team also work with GP federations supporting the implementation of clinical services.

Tara has over 20 years of project management and business development experience across the private and public sector and has an MBA in Leadership and Management in Healthcare, is published in the London Journal of Primary Care and is the author of over 150 blogs articles. She presents her own podcast: The Business of Healthcare With Tara Humphrey.

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