I completed the NHS Peer Leadership Academy (PLA) in Autumn 2018, and on the last day, we were all asked the choose one word to sum up our experience. My word? Empowering.

HollyWhen a friend first suggested I apply for the Academy back in the middle of last year, I wasn’t initially convinced it was for me. I read the brief and scratched my head a bit. While I do have a lifelong health condition and assorted experiences related to living with this, I have never held a personal health budget and couldn’t really put into words what “personalised care” consisted of.

However, I was already involved in quite a bit of patient support, advocacy and volunteering, and I knew I wanted to use my experiences to help others, I just wasn’t sure how everything would fit together. I wondered whether the Peer Leadership Academy might be able to provide me with a bit of direction and encouragement, so I applied, was excited to be accepted, and looked forward to seeing what it would be like!

When I arrived on the first day and met the other participants, I very quickly realised that I should never have worried about not being “the right kind of person”! Our group was hugely diverse with a wide variety of backgrounds, all keen to get to know one another, open to sharing our experiences of life with a long-term health condition or disability, and to consider how personalised care applied to each of us as patients or caregivers. I certainly left all three residential sessions with my brain more full than it was when I arrived!

Overall, the Peer Leadership Academy not only introduced me to some incredible people and taught me a lot, it also significantly changed the way I see myself. Prior to attending, I felt that, while I certainly had the desire to build a stronger voice to advocate for other patients and to encourage them to become proactive members of their medical teams, I was “a bit too quiet” or “not knowledgeable enough” to have any real impact.

Through a mixture of facilitated sessions and discussions with other participants, I very quickly learned that I knew a lot more than I gave myself credit for! I also realised that everybody, regardless of whether they’re introverted, extroverted, a carer, a patient or anything else in between, all had something to gain from the Academy. For some, it was an opportunity to boost their own knowledge (to better manage their conditions and allow them to live the life they wanted). For others, it was a springboard to doing more in-depth work with organisations they’re already part of, or to move towards being involved in projects at a regional or national level. The possibilities for “where to next?” really were limitless.

Once I finished the PLA in November last year, I went on to apply for, and be accepted into, the Personalised Care Strategic Co-production Group. Although I am still quite a new member, I’m really enjoying all the opportunities I’ve had so far. I’ve attended meetings and workshops, as well as giving quite a few presentations about my own experience of personalised care and its impact on my life. My confidence in what I have to offer has improved hugely, I certainly don’t view myself as “too quiet” or “uninformed” anymore!

For anybody reading this who may be considering applying for the next Peer Leadership Academy, I would absolutely encourage you to go for it! Don’t worry if you don’t feel like you’re confident or knowledgeable enough; if you go into it with an open mind and a willingness to learn something, you might be surprised by what you get out of it!

If you would like to find out more about the latest Peer Leadership Academy and how you can apply, you can download the latest application leaflet here.