Learning and development in occupational health must include customer service

learning and development in occupational health

Learning and development in OH must combine clinical training with a large element of customer service and consulting skills, says Tracey Connolly, HR director at OH Assist.

The challenges facing occupational health providers are well known: an ageing OH workforce; not enough people training in OH; and an increasingly competitive environment, where customers expect more for less. These are just a few of the major issues that have to be addressed.

Add to this the introduction of the Nursing and Midwifery Council’s revalidation scheme for nurses and pressure on training budgets, and it is clear that OH providers need to be smart and innovative to achieve a sustainable learning and development (L&D) solution that meets all of these challenges at once.

Learning and development for impact

An obvious, but often overlooked, issue is ensuring that a L&D activity is designed for impact. Studies of training show a widespread tendency for organisations to spend money on an activity that achieves no benefit to the individual or the organisation.

It is one thing to gather some questionnaires from learners immediately after a training course or learning session, but it is quite another to evaluate how the learning objectives have translated into actual improvement in skills, knowledge and, most importantly, how the service to patients and client organisations has improved as a result of that L&D intervention.

In some cases, such as training for technical skills – for example, administering vaccinations, carrying out audiometry and so on – evaluation of impact might be related to zero errors in delivering the clinical intervention. However, many aspects of OH practice involve subjective judgements that are more difficult to evaluate properly.

Business case for learning and development in occupational health

Most organisations understand the concept of the “business case” – the basic summary of the costs of an investment and the expected benefits to be realised as a result. A smart and innovative approach to L&D requires organisations to be clear about the business case for investing in L&D activities.

“Will an OH adviser receiving HAVS training deliver sufficient volumes of this work to remain competent?” is at the very easy end of a business-case justification. At the more difficult end are questions such as: “Will our sponsorship of an MBA result in increased performance of the individual and organisation?”. As well as other considerations, such as whether or not the MBA will improve staff retention and motivation.

In between, there are the vast majority of L&D interventions, ranging from online health and safety awareness courses to intensive client-relationship skills training and lots more besides, where the business case is often less clear and certainly more difficult to evaluate.

Evaluation: clinical quality and service quality

For most OH providers, the “provisional” business case for L&D expenditure is to achieve some notion of quality outcomes. This can be confused in terms of what we mean by clinical quality and service quality.

By way of example, consider the handling of a referral to OH for someone on long-term sickness. Clinical quality can typically be characterised in terms of predefined criteria, such as good-quality case notes, evidence-based clinical judgements and a clear, well-written management report. Achieving clinical quality does not mean service quality has been achieved, because this is usually defined by the level of satisfaction based on the customer’s subjective experience of the service.

Future learning and development in occupational health

Increasingly, L&D investment has to focus more on achiev­ing tangible service-quality benefits for customers as well as meeting clinical-quality expectations of the provider. This means crafting L&D interventions that focus on contextualising clinical learning in terms of how to deliver service value.

Dr Lucy Wright, chief medical officer at OH Assist, provides a current example: “OH Assist spends several million pounds each year on clinical L&D, but until recently we were not getting enough value from it. “Following a comprehensive review, we are now investing in programmes that not only teach clinical skills, but contain a large element of customer service and consulting skills as an integral part of clinical training.

“The measurable benefits of this change in approach include higher service satisfaction from customers and increased ability of OH Assist practitioners to deliver more high-value consultancy assignments.”

Conclusion

If OH providers are to attract more people to the profession, a new, less clinical-based approach is needed. Doctors, nurses and other practitioners equipped with management consulting skills can deliver enhanced service value, while ensuring good governance of more junior staff to deliver routine technical services. A smart L&D strategy, focused on measurable impacts in the workplace, is a key component to make this happen.

Tracey Connolly is the HR director at OH Assist Ltd.

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