Warrington Disability Partnership image

Industry collaboration leads to retail innovation

Often in the world of mobility retail, one of the most difficult challenges faced by companies is reaching customers who may not be aware of that mobility and independent living products, shops and services exist. A unique new collaboration in Warrington between the NHS and a social enterprise however is working to change this. Dave Thompson MBE DL, CEO of Warrington Disability Partnership & Disability Trading Company, caught up with THIIS to discuss the new partnership.

With the National Health Service under increasing financial pressure and a growing ageing population, organisations are exploring new ways of collaborating to lead to better outcomes for patients and relieve the strain from overburdened services.

In Warrington, local charity Warrington Disability Partnership has partnered with Warrington and Halton Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust to embed a new Mobility and Independent Living Service within the hospital, reaching tens of thousands of disabled residents and carers in the area.

Located in the hospital’s orthopaedic fracture clinic near its outpatient department at the rear of the Warrington Hospital site, the new site sees Warrington Disability Partnership providing information, advice and guidance to visitors.

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Interestingly, Warrington Disability Partnership – under the banner of its social enterprise Disability Trading Company – is also selling mobility and independent living products from the site.

Officially opened in mid-September, Steve McGuirk, Chair at the Trust, commented: “This new service will provide our patients and staff with direct access to mobility and independent living products, as well as peer support, information, advice and guidance to disabled people, from disabled people, at the point where people need it most.”

Forming the partnership

Warrington Disability Partnership image

Having been working on introducing the initiative for almost half a decade with the Trust, Dave told THIIS that a key challenge to embedding a Warrington Disability Partnership base in the hospital was funding the staff to run it and finding a suitable, affordable location in the hospital.

“The idea was really sound and both the hospital and Local Authority were on board but the funding and location were the real sticking points,” he said.

“Earlier this year, we had a situation where we were going to lose two members from our independent living scheme as the Local Authority was planning to reconfigure our service.

“We said if they believed in the service we wanted to offer at the hospital, we urged them not to take away the funding from us but rather, allow us to use the funding to have those two members of staff do the in-reach service at the hospital, which they were happy to support.”

Solving the issue surrounding staffing, the charity still had to find a place to situate the new service. A fortunate turn of events however resulted in an old pharmacy unit in the fracture clinic becoming available, which Warrington Disability Partnership was allowed to use.

With the two major stumbling blocks resolved, the initiative to embed a Warrington Disability Partnership hospital in-reach service looked set to launch until a change in circumstance threatened to derail the project.

“Two months out from launch, the Local Authority changed their mind and decided they were not going to reconfigure the independent living scheme. This meant the staff who were going to run the hospital service needed to stay where they were,” described Dave.

“The opportunity seemed too good to pass up, as we had found a suitable facility and had the program ready to run, so we worked with the hospital and came to an agreement regarding having a retail operation alongside our information, advice and guidance service.”

Retail integration and self-sustainable funding

According to Dave, the case was made to the Trust that by combining Warrington Disability Partnership’s in-reach service which would provide valuable information on areas such as employment, independent living and social and personal health budgets, alongside its Disability Trading Company retail operation, the service could become self-sustainable.

“We have patients, their family, their carers and people being discharged coming to speak to us about their mobility and independent living needs” Dave Thompson MBE DL

As well as collaborating with the Trust and Local Authority, Dave also turned to local Warrington businesses to help initially fund the new enterprise.

“I was fortunate enough to win the Lifetime Achievement Award in the Warrington Business Awards and I put out a plea to local businesses on the night for 10 companies to support the project with three-thousand-pounds in the first year and two-thousand-pounds in the second year. That would pay for two, paid members of staff to work in the facility,” said Dave.

On the night, Cheshire Telecom, BAS (NW), Dunky’s Day Nursery, Foden Estates, Mech Tech Automotive, Central Self Drive, The Print Company, Toni & Guy, Hoppy Trust and Health Service Money Claims signed up and the project was in business.

Reaching the right people at the right time

At the initiative’s core is information, advice and guidance underlines Dave, with two disabled members of staff providing vital advice and support to a variety of people.

“We have patients, their family, their carers and people being discharged coming to speak to us about their mobility and independent living needs,” emphasised Dave.

“Additionally, as most of the people who work with the charity and social enterprise are disabled people, the hospital service is able to offer peer-to-peer support, with our disabled staff working with other disabled people, which the hospital loves.”

As well as patients, one set of visitors that have found the new service particularly useful are members of staff at the hospital.

“We also had a lot of members of staff coming to see us who have shown a great interest in the new service and Warrington Disability Partnership because even they didn’t know the number of services we run as a charity,” he added.

As well as providing valuable advice, the organisation is selling a range of mobility and independent living aids through its Disability Trading Company arm to visitors, raising awareness of solutions, as well as much needed funds.

“The Disability Trading Company will help generate the revenue needed to help drive the rest of the charity’s activities,” Dave told THIIS.

“It really is a holistic approach to improving people’s lives by providing a vital commercial service which can help support the charity’s unprofitable but just as important services.”

The concept of embedding a retail operation in a hospital is noteworthy, with the Disability Trading Company gaining access to a customer base who may be facing a new life after a diagnosis of a debilitating and often long-term health condition and unaware of products available to them on the market.

“We were very careful to make sure that there wouldn’t be a situation where people were not given products because they could now be purchased in the hospital” Dave Thompson MBE DL

According to Dave, the initiative has been well-received and seen a substantial uptake, with a rise in traffic to its Centre for Independent Living off-site, less than a mile away from the hospital. At the Centre, visitors can browse in a large showroom, take a break in the onsite Café, try out mobility equipment on the Centre’s mobility test track and discuss a whole range of independent living matters with the charities team of advisors.

“This means having that outreach in the hospital is really helping to deliver our charitable services,” he said.

Location, location, location

Warrington Disability Partnership image

One of the key factors of the retail outlet’s success is its prime location in the hospital, which is perfectly placed to attract customers leaving hospital and staff interested in new products.

“The fact we are located in the fracture clinic, next to physiotherapy and occupational therapy, as well as their independent living discharge flat which is only two doors away and their pain management team which sits in the same area, means we have a great location,” explained Dave.

“It is an ideal addition to the hospital’s services and really helps facilitate integrated care, which is so important in the National Health Service.”

With the Warrington Disability Partnership / Disability Trading Company hybrid seeing so much success since its launch, the charity is already planning the next step for the initiative.

“This is just a stepping stone for us as we plan to move into a larger retail unit at the front of the hospital within the next six months,” confirmed Dave.

A risk of NHS privatisation?

Inevitably, embedding a mobility retail outlet into an NHS hospital will lead to questions regarding privatisation and conflicting interests, with concerns relating to the Disability Trading Company selling products that the hospital would traditionally give away for free.

“If you have the wrong type of retailer in that environment, it could lead to some very compromising and potentially harmful situations.” Dave Thompson MBE DL

According to Dave however, the Trust and social enterprise have worked closely, examining what aids are provided to patients, to ensure no tensions arise.

“Regarding privatisation, there are products that we do sell in our Independent Living Centres and our shops elsewhere that the NHS give away and will continue to give away,” he said.

“We have had those conversations with the hospital to find out what products are given away, such as neck braces, some splints and crutches, and where those products are identified, we will not stock them.

“We were very careful to make sure that there wouldn’t be a situation where people were not given products because they could now be purchased in the hospital, hence why we are very selective over what is stocked.”

Dave highlighted that because of the Disability Trading Company’s unique set-up as a social enterprise, the retailer has the perfect structure for running the initiative ethically, with a strong values base.

“We don’t see every person as a potential customer; most simply need information, advice and guidance,” added Dave.

“Disability Trading Company and Warrington Disability Partnership are organisations fighting for the rights of disabled people. This means our sales staff are not paid on commission and do not have sales targets to meet, so there is no incentive to offer anything but the best advice, which is essential when operating in that hospital environment,” he continued.

“Every single member of our team has a decent salary and is tasked with providing advice and information. If a product can assist with that, then our staff will make the person aware but that is never driven by a sales motivation, which is why the hospital trusts us to act ethically.

“What we make sure is that people get the right information and right advice and the right product, regardless where they buy it. Where necessary, we refer people to other local, regional and national suppliers.”

Not for everyone

Warrington Disability Partnership image

The innovative retail initiative is one formed through close collaboration and relationship building with a number of different parties, providing an opportunity for all involved to win.

Importantly, Dave stressed that whilst embedding a retail outlet in an NHS Trust is a great way to reach end-users at the right time, it is not a model all in the industry could or should adopt.

“I think this will be a way forward for many retailers, however, we were very careful regarding how something like this was implemented,” he commented.

“The hospital did due diligence checks on us, sent secret shoppers and more to make sure we were the right type of organisation to work with.

“You have people who have been diagnosed with life-changing conditions in a very vulnerable state of mind who have been discharged from hospital and walking through outpatients. If you have the wrong type of retailer in that environment, it could lead to some very compromising and potentially harmful situations.

“It would be completely wrong and unfortunately, we know that this type of activity still takes place in the industry. That is why the BHTA is so important, helping to ensure trading is fair and true.”

The power of collaboration

Now entering its fourth month operating a community outreach and retail base from the hospital, the initiative has gone from strength to strength, acting as a model for what can be achieved by a little creativity and a lot of collaboration.



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