Despite leaving school with no qualifications and told he’d never amount to anything – Michael Curtis has defied the doubters, studying for his Master’s degree and winning a national award for a project transforming older people’s lives in County Durham.

Michael, a trainee advanced clinical practitioner (ACP), for the Tees, Esk and Wear Valleys NHS Foundation Trust older people’s service in Easington, won the Patient Experience Transformer of Tomorrow award at the Patient Experience Network National Awards 2021

(PENNA). The awards celebrate the delivery of outstanding patient experience by those involved in the health and social care industry.

pWhat makes Michael’s achievement most remarkable is the journey he’s taken to reach this point in his career; having left school with no qualifications, he joined the Army, then left to work in a factory. But knowing he had a lot more to give, and a passion for healthcare, he completed a degree 2010 in Mental Health Nursing, working his way through the ranks of the NHS to become an ACP.

He then wanted to push his career further and joined the University of  Sunderland’s Advanced Clinical Practitioner Master’s programme part-time. But within weeks, the 39-year-old found himself struggling with his grades and it was finally discovered that he had unknowingly been living with dyslexia.

Support was put in place to aid his condition and within weeks Michael’s grades began to soar, impressing academics, and his confidence grew – he now has a national award to add to his CV.

“I still can’t believe I’ve won this award, but it’s recognition for all those involved in the project, especially Dr Sidhu from Blackhall GP practice and Alison Pattison the manger at Blackhall Community centre,” says Michael, from Blackhall Colliery, County Durham. “This is also a huge honour for me personally, having only been diagnosed with dyslexia a couple of years ago, struggling educationally for so long, and being written off at an early age. I was determined I was going to prove I could achieve as much as anyone. But the diagnosis has been such a significant change for me!”

Michael was nominated by the University for the Dementia Friendly Village project which was created when he was tasked to find a way of engaging primary care colleagues and the local community as part of his degree programme.

In a dementia-friendly community people are aware of and understand dementia so that those with dementia can continue to live well, in the way they want to and in the community they choose.

Growing up in Blackhall Colliery, a socio-economically deprived community where residents place a high degree of trust in their local GP, still hold some stigma towards mental health services and living with a family member diagnosed with mixed dementia, Michael said: “I had lived experience of receiving and facilitating services and wanted to bring the community together so people with dementia are understood, respected and supported.

“I attended a GP practice meeting and expressed my vision of building dementia hubs in unison with primary care. I demonstrated what could be achieved and a GP pilot was set up to engage local GP leads and their federations to grow dementia hubs to offer memory assessment, investigations, diagnosis, treatment, reviews, carers education and signposting all under one roof.

“Close working relationships were formed with the community centre, local schools and shops, the library and services such as the Alzheimer’s Society to expand the project, breakdown mental health stigma and support people to keep active, involved and valued.

So, what began small eventually grew and grew into Blackhall Colliery working towards becoming the first dementia friendly village in the north-east. This meant those with dementia and their carers felt part of the community, they could live in a way they wanted and didn’t feel lonely, cut off from society and kept active and valued.”

The MSc Advanced Clinical Practitioner is a higher-level clinical apprenticeship programme designed and developed with local NHS trusts and healthcare providers in line with the Health Education England Multi-Professional Framework for Advanced Clinical Practice. This framework requires healthcare professionals who are working at an advanced level have developed and can evidence the underpinning role/discipline specific competencies and the associated knowledge, skills and behaviours relevant to the clinical setting and advanced practice role.

Programme Leader Victoria Duffy said: “Michael really embodies the ACP role and has made some amazing changes for his client group in response to the pandemic. He thoroughly deserves this recognition and we are all immensely proud of his success.

“The Apprenticeship programme allows our practitioners to grow, develop and shape advanced practice for the benefits of the patients and communities in which they work. It is really important that we celebrate this success, especially during such tough times in healthcare.”

A PENNA spokesperson said: “We were delighted to see such a valuable project from Michael Curtis entered into the Patient Experience Network National Awards 2021. We want to congratulate Michael and Tees, Esk and Wear Valley NHS Foundation Trust on their success as winner of the Patient Experience Network 2021 Transformer of Tomorrow award.”