Using clinical experience to shape learning

Ana Aragon, a leading occupational therapist, talks about her work to develop an Excellence Network learning pathway for therapists.

Ana Aragon, occupational therapist (OT) and co-author of the Occupational therapy for people with Parkinson's best practice guidelines, has recently joined Parkinson's UK to lead an exciting new project to develop a learning pathway for occupational therapists, physiotherapists and speech and language therapists.

In this interview, she talks about how her passion for Parkinson's was fostered and what opportunities the Excellence Network can give for therapists working in the UK today.

What's your experience of working with people with Parkinson's?

I qualified in 1989 and worked in a range of NHS in-patient departments for the next 8 years.

However my interest in Parkinson's developed when I worked in Bath with Dr Dorothy Robertson in her specialist movement disorders out-patient service. I estimate I saw around 700 people with Parkinson's and related conditions during my time there.

Dr Robertson supported me to develop my knowledge and confidence both through reading and discussing original research papers, and later by attending and speaking at conferences.

Professionals need to access support for their learning from others so they can provide the best care for their patients.

She showed me how powerful being in a supportive environment is for getting the best out of clinicians. Undoubtedly this has been paramount in my later work in contributing to journals, national guidelines, research and training.  

Unfortunately I think it's getting much harder to have this experience of mentorship in today's NHS. So in a way, the Excellence Network is all the more important, as professionals need to access support for their learning from others so they can provide the best care for their patients.

What do you think are key challenges for occupational therapists in practice?

Because OTs work in such a wide variety of places within the health and social care system, it's very easy to become isolated from their peers. This is particularly true in social services where an OT might be the only 'clinical' member of staff.

It can be very difficult to develop clinical knowledge and skills about conditions as complex as Parkinson's, while others may come to rely on your clinical expertise, even if this feels unwarranted.

Another major challenge, again especially in social services, is that an OT may well be seeing people in very advanced stages of Parkinson's with many complex needs.

As a group, we occupational therapists often shoulder significant, but frequently unseen, responsibilities.

In some cases, an OT will see people who have slipped through the net and are not receiving any of the care they need or may be still undiagnosed. This then gives OTs additional responsibility to ensure the right services are accessed.

So what makes the Excellence Network attractive to therapists like yourself?

Having a friendly community like the Excellence Network where the building of expertise is regarded as central to our role is vital.

We want to ensure the best informed professionals work with people with Parkinson's and we can only do this if it's a rewarding speciality to be in.

As a breed, OTs tend to signpost useful information and opportunities to others, so could play a great role in spreading the word about the Excellence Network and getting others involved.

Tell us more about the project you are working on and how others can help

I am developing a learning pathway to underpin the professional development of occupational therapists, physiotherapists and speech and language therapists working in Parkinson's services.

This will show what knowledge and skills are required by each of these professional groups in order to provide high quality care and resources to fulfil these learning needs.

We need to ensure that we are being creative about how therapists access learning opportunities. For example, I recently presented 2 half-day Parkinson's sessions online to 70 OTs gathered in Tel Aviv university! I plan to look at other innovative means of gaining knowledge and skills, both face-to-face and virtually.

The ultimate purpose of this learning pathway is to bring information into one place, so people affected by Parkinson's can be confident that care is provided by well informed therapists. 

How you can help

I have created a survey so that I can learn more about the learning needs of occupational therapists, physiotherapists and speech and language therapists.

I want to hear from as many UK-based therapists as possible, even if you see very few people with Parkinson's each year.

So if you're a therapist, please fill in the survey. If you're not, pass it on to the therapists you know.

If you have partially completed the survey, it would really help me if you could return and finish it. You will need to find the email that was sent to you when you selected ‘save and continue’ after starting the survey.

If you can’t find this email, you will need to start the survey from the beginning to ensure you can contribute the full benefit of your experience and opinions.

Please complete the survey before it closes on 16 August.