Colin Gray: New partnership between CAB and NHS is healthy step

We can all need advice at times, but rarely more so than when our health suddenly changes. An illness or operation can affect our ability to work, our housing, relationships, benefit entitlement and plans for the future. At these times it is vital to access help '“ and for advice to be available quickly and conveniently.

The Edinburgh Royal Infirmary

The Welfare Rights & Health Project is a partnership between Citizens Advice Edinburgh and NHS Lothian which brings advice into the acute sector. Originally a two-year pilot project, the service has restarted at the Royal Infirmary and Western General hospitals and now offers a full general advice service to patients, carers and their family members, Monday to Friday 9-5pm.

The service offers advice at the point where people are often given life-changing news and are having to deal with a sudden change in circumstances. This can often relate to claiming benefits such as Employment and Support Allowance or Personal Independence Payments, but also includes financial worries, employment issues and a whole range of related enquiries.

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Underlying the initiative is the increasing understanding that good advice equals better health. Key findings from a survey carried out at the Royal Infirmary Hospital include a reported reduction in stress and worry by clients who had sought advice from the service. Typical comments included: “I was in a pretty horrible place…. I’m sure it helped my recovery....If you’re ill you sometimes have to dig really deep to get help. You need it there and then.”

“Without her advice I don’t know what we would have done. I wasn’t able to go anywhere else for help. Once you are relaxed you can concentrate on getting better.”
 “The real effect was to reduce stress… The relief to get the debt sorted was huge… I think that without this service I would have cracked up and my parents would have cracked up too. It was a godsend.”

The service has additional benefits for staff working at the hospital, for example by freeing up time for staff to deliver their core service.

A number of staff have expressed relief that they can again help their patients access expert advice. This may not otherwise be available, either because of time or knowledge.

The project fosters a positive sense of partnership working towards shared objectives. The service is highly valued by staff at the hospitals.

As one staff member commented: “The need is vast. The service has been more successful than I imagined it would be.

“It is exciting and tangible and you can see its impact. You know it is working. It is an important aspect of being a ‘caring’ organisation. Really caring for people as individuals.”

Evaluations of welfare rights advice projects in healthcare settings have shown considerable financial gain to clients. Client financial gain for the original Edinburgh pilot project amounted to over £300,000 over two years. This represents incredible value for money and return on investment for funders, in addition to the health benefits achieved by the project.

The Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) service in Scotland operates in over 200 locations including primary and acute healthcare settings.

Evaluations of these services showed high levels of patient satisfaction, positive financial outcomes, reduced stress and improved overall well-being as well as reduction in prescriptions used.

These also show that welfare advice services in healthcare settings bring benefits to staff including a reduction in workload and more effective use of time, and help to tackle health inequalities.

Life changing accidents and illnesses can often cause financial hardship. Thanks to CAE’s Welfare Rights & Health Project, more patients are able to access advice services on-site, which can have a considerable benefit to their health and recovery.

• Colin Gray is interim chief executive of Citizens Advice Edinburgh