There seems little doubt that the NHS is in crisis. Many people find it hard to get an appointment with their GP, so they rely on emergency services. But hospitals are overcrowded and understaffed, with the result that ambulances queue outside to hand over patients – and are consequently unable to respond to any further calls. Inside A&E, the wait can be long. And when patients are ready to be discharged, there is often nowhere for them to go because there is no community or social care available. 

Hospital beds are therefore in short supply, only adding to the gridlock. That’s not my summary of the situation; it comes from a recent report by the House of Lords Public Services Committee.

Counsellors who work in healthcare settings, whether in the NHS or elsewhere, are probably all too familiar with the strain on the system – and on staff. In the January issue of HCPJ, we look at some of the innovative ways that counsellors are supporting both healthcare workers and patients.

Ronan Burke, a clinical psychologist at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, tells us how his training in cognitive analytic therapy has informed his work with patients who have been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis or brain tumour in Making sense of symptoms. It is a model of therapy that looks at our early relationships in order to understand our current relationships – and Ronan thinks it can help neurological patients to come to terms with their diagnosis.

If you need an operation, you will almost certainly undertake a pre-operative screening to assess the risks of surgery. And risks largely mean biological risks; the screening is unlikely to assess any psychological or social factors. Tonia Anderson and Dr Gina Wong are calling for a new approach in Prevention is better than cure, which recognises the influence on pain management and recovery of psychological wellbeing, income, lifestyle, beliefs and support structure. They argue that pre-operative counselling could not only ease the burden on the health service, but could also improve the lives of millions of people, by mitigating the risks of developing chronic pain. 

Many of the patients in our hospitals are suffering from dementia. But counselling could help them, too, according to a study by Georgia Bell, Josh Stott and Amber John in How talking therapy can help dementia patients. The study offers compelling evidence that talking therapies available through IAPT services can be effective in treating depression and anxiety in people with mild to moderate dementia. Of course, you might have known that all along, but it helps to have some research to back up your claims and to challenge some of the more common assumptions about dementia patients.

It's not just patients who can benefit from innovative therapeutic interventions. Alison O’Connor explains how she helped to organise a residential retreat for healthcare staff who were suffering from burnout and ‘moral injury’. The retreat was built around talking circles, allowing members of the group to reflect on and share their experiences of working through the pandemic. You can read Alison’s article, The restorative power of circles as well as some responses from members of the retreat, in our July issue, which is really a celebration of the work of all counsellors in healthcare settings.