WHEN the two remaining general practitioners in the small Cumbrian village of Temple Sowerby were attempting to devise innovative ways of working, to cope with the demands of their 4500 patients, they did not initially think of asking the vicar.
Yet, because the National Health Service and the Church are facing similar pressures — funding, lack of staff — in many ways there is an obvious synergy between the two.
Dr Helen Jervis and her partner, Dr Jo Thompson, were left as the only GPs for a practice that had once housed five clinical staff, and they were struggling to meet the demand on their services. “If it hadn’t been for Sarah,” Dr Jervis says, “whom we’d known for a long time, we wouldn’t have thought of contacting the Church. We were trying to look at what we did that didn’t require doctor time, and reduce it. One of the things that came up was the number of people who used us as their confidante rather than having medical problems.”
Sarah is the Rector, the Revd Sarah Lunn, who had been studying a rural leadership course at the Arthur Rank Centre, besides looking after her 12 rural parishes in the Eden Valley. The course seeks to encourage clergy in rural parishes to find creative and entrepreneurial ideas for reaching out to their communities. As part of her study, she was given the task of finding a workplace that was similar to the Church in her rural area; so she went to speak to Dr Jervis and Dr Thompson at the surgery, and the idea for the “Listening Ear” was born.
The project is aimed at patients who book frequent appointments with GPs because they are troubled or unhappy, and their state of mind leads to physical symptoms.
If they agree, the patients are referred, and Ms Lunn gets in touch to arrange an appointment. Instead of being offered the ten minutes allocated for a GP appointment, patients can be seen for up to an hour by Ms Lunn in her own room in the surgery.
The conversations — as with GP appointments — are confidential, and do not appear on the patients’ medical records. But, if there are concerns about a patient, Ms Lunn will refer him or her back to the GP. She also frequently refers patients on to other services, or directs them to suitable activities. One patient to whom she suggested signing up to an exercise class is now taking all her friends along to the class — and has not felt the need to see Ms Lunn again.
“Most of the issues I am called in for are related to bereavement, or life-changing decisions, or isolation. Most people I see only once or twice, though occasionally someone will come to me for a bit longer. For many of them, its not about changing anything: it’s just about being heard,” Ms Lunn says.
There is no talk about faith during appointments, unless patients bring it up. Nor does Ms Lunn offer to pray for patients. “We did worry, in the beginning, that if people did not go to church, they wouldn’t like it, but that hasn’t happened at all. No one has refused yet,” Dr Jarvis says.
“People can self-refer, too. It isn’t CBT [cognitive behavioural therapy], and it’s not counselling: it’s someone to bounce thoughts off. . . It’s there in place of extended family, for people who don’t have family living near by.”
The GPs are realistic about the impact that the project has had on the demands on their time, but say that it is making a difference to some of their regular patients. “It is difficult to say how many appointments have been saved. It’s a niche service, but it has had an impact on the practice,” Dr Jarvis says. “Sarah can spend a lot more time with people than we can, and it’s good to know that.”
“Those people who were phoning the surgery all the time with physical symptoms, which is how stress shows itself, now aren’t phoning so much,” Ms Lunn says. “And I have got to know all the surgery staff, and visited some of them when they are off sick themselves. It’s a great privilege.
“It is incarnational ministry: it is loving one another. It is what we are meant to do, and it is a way of being Christ to other people.”
LISTENING EAR was launched in September 2014, but it was not easy to get it started. The NHS is now keen on the project, but discussions over confidentiality and safety went on for several years.
Once it did start, however, word spread quickly, and, from its beginnings in Temple Sowerby, there are now seven surgeries that work with clergy in and around the Eden Valley. Fifteen ministers — mostly Anglican, but some Methodist — have already been trained by the NHS and the Community Voluntary Service to offer the service, and more are willing to join in.
Part of the success in Temple Sowerby and its surrounds is down to the fact that Sarah herself is so well embedded in the area, having lived there for a decade. She even keeps sheep in the vicarage garden. That local knowledge has helped her to be accepted, she says, but she sees potential for the project to spread across the country, using clergy and other faith leaders, depending on the region and its context.
A spokesperson for NHS North Cumbria Clinical Commissioning Group says: “We are very supportive of innovative ideas that ease the pressures on our GPs and help our communities. We know how valued this service is, and are grateful to the clergy for the difference this is making.”
The service is likely to be rolled out further: a GP from London has visited to look at the project and consider how it might be applied in an urban setting. Ms Lunn has been to talk to clergy in the diocese of Newcastle about it.
She is also going to speak about the project at the International Conference of the Rural Churches Association next year, in New Zealand.
The Integrated Community Care team for her area has now asked whether churches can be used to signpost where people can get help if they have health or well-being concerns. Ms Lunn said that plans were in place, and it was hoped that churches — which are the only remaining community building in many rural communities — would be proactive.
She said: “We are hoping to ask all churches to set aside a specific area where health and well-being information will be kept and regularly updated, as, with many rural churches being open, folk on the fringes tend to pop in, where they would not go to the library or surgery.”
The Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Revd James Newcome, is a supporter of the initiative. The Bishops’ lead spokesman in the House of Lords on health, he is “hugely impressed” by the scheme.
The former chief nursing officer for the NHS, now the Bishop of Crediton, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, also sees enormous potential: “Safe spaces to offload — isn’t that what we all need? We know that our well-being is improved by connecting with others, and it is great that GPs are working with church leaders to provide a safe space for their patients to have someone to talk to. It mirrors the best practice we already have in our hospitals.
“Vicars are trusted not to pass what they hear on, and so they offer a safe space in which people can talk. What a wonderful example of the NHS and Church working together for the benefit of the community! I am sure others can learn from this example.”
Ms Lunn feels that her traditional ministry is also reaping the benefits of the Listening Ear service. “I love it, because I am passionate about communities’ thriving, and so are our local GPs: we share this joint passion. And now I’m seen as the vicar who will talk to anyone, and not just the vicar who wants people to go to church. It’s a chance to be open and talk to people, not to be seen as proselytising or asking for money.”