Wight lightning: JP talks to NHS’ Helen Figgins

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JP escapes the mayhem to discover that every man and indeed woman is an island.


While the rest of the country tries desperately to keep afloat I wonder to myself, periodically, what they’re all thinking on the Isle of Wight – is it a sanctuary? It’s time to get some answers from Operations Manager Specialist Services, Helen Figgins – someone who knows a thing or two about the NHS and pharma islands, as well.


How did you end up on the Isle of Wight, Helen?

My partner is from the Isle of Wight, while I am from Christchurch, which it is just across the water. I started living there at weekends, but then a job opportunity arose, and now I’m living the dream, as an island resident.


Trying a desert island out first sounds very sensible.

Yes, you need to slowly condition yourself – it’s a bit of a different lifestyle.


How strange has it been living on an island, while the rest of the country descends into chaos?

You still feel very much part of Britain and all the chaos that’s going on. In terms of the wider political agenda, it doesn’t feel any different from living in Christchurch. There are still the same debates on the island – families are arguing, and friendships are being lost.


That’s reassuring to know. You’ll be just as bemused about where Cameron is. Perhaps fishing on the Isle of Wight?

I don’t know whether I’ve been watching too much House of Cards, but I think there’s a lot going on in the background that we don’t know about.


When did you first realise you wanted to help people?

When I was very young I wanted to be a nurse. My mum wouldn’t let me, because she’s a nurse and she didn’t want me to experience the frustrations with the NHS that she’d gone through. During my A Levels I did a lot of voluntary work at a children’s home, carrying out physiotherapy. Then I realised that in order to specialise in child physio, I’d have to administer it on old people, and at the age of 17, it didn’t appeal to me.


Ha! What did you go for instead?

I studied human biology, with psychology, at university. I was also working for Red Bull at the time, and my tutor suggested that I mix the sales and biology aspects of my life together, and become a medical rep. I ended up working for AstraZeneca, and went on to do some commercial and brand management. I always felt, however, that I was on the wrong side of the fence, and regretted not going down the healthcare route.


How did you rectify the situation?

I left and went travelling.


Good on you!

After that I moved to Canada for a while, and got a job helping out with the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010. I’d always wanted to be involved in something like that, because I love skiing. I looked after 200 volunteers, arranging movement on and off the mountain. I really enjoyed all the comradery and high-fiving.


Did your career continue going uphill when you got back home?

I joined Events 4 Healthcare as a Commercial Director. I wanted the chance to really look at marketing messages, product development and studying the evidence behind a product – and that’s what Karl Hamer was doing.


How did you take the leap into the public sector?

We were doing a project on mental health at E4H, when the subject of commissioners came up. I didn’t really know what they did, so I Googled it, and a role for a mental health commissioner came up on the Isle of Wight. I decided to apply and I got the job.


It sounds like you wanted to get the patient in sharper focus.

Previously in my career there were too many times when the patient wasn’t at the forefront of the conversation. Making a difference has always been a motivating factor for me.


From a healthcare perspective, what’s it like on the Isle of Wight? 

We have serious financial pressures like most places at the moment, especially being an island with a small population. It is exciting, however, as we are a vanguard site and looking at redesigning health and social care services to ensure they meet the needs of the island residents, and are sustainable. We should see some innovative projects emerging from this work, which we can share with other areas. Being an island has its advantages – we only have one local authority, one CCG and one NHS trust. The mental health services are part of the main acute trust, which is unusual as they are typically separate. This helps us to address the parity of esteem agenda – making sure physical and mental health are addressed equally.



That sounds like a really practical and streamlined way of helping patients.

You have to treat the person holistically, because so many of these problems are interlinked. The Isle of Wight has carried out some excellent work in collaborating with the police, not just in challenging situations, but also treating high-risk patients that are presenting to a number of different agencies. The work is looking to be shared across the South Coast with other CCGs and police forces.


What are your next challenges?

After being on maternity leave recently, I decided to take a job as an operations manager, so I’m now delivering the services, which commissioners monitor, as opposed to the other way around – I’m on other side of the table during negotiations. The services I deal with are dementia, learning disabilities, drugs and alcohol, and children’s mental health.


What’s your job like on a daily basis?

My working day varies – no two days are the same. It includes keeping an eye on budgets, performance, workforce and responding to our statutory requirements. It’s also about ensuring we’re delivering against our service specifications, challenging back to commissioners about increases in demand, and identifying service efficiencies or increased capacity requirements. Overall the aim is to help the system flow better and improve outcomes.


Sounds like you’re very busy, Helen. What record would you choose for the soundtrack of your life?

Break My Stride by Matthew Wilder.


Curious. What would your last meal consist of?

Steak and chips. And mackerel and new potatoes.


That’s two, Helen, but you deserve them. Goodbye or, as the say on the Isle of Wight, ‘goodbye’.

Bye John.