Founding faculty – Sue Thomas: Proud to have shaped service change nationwide


Sue Thomas has been involved in Parkinson’s care since the first specialist nurse post was established in 1989. She was part of the national steering group that evaluated the five ‘flagship’ Parkinson’s nurse posts and was later instrumental in their rollout. Her nursing background both clinically and nationally at the Royal College of Nursing, as well as her experience in establishing these posts brought commissioning and service development together. It was this expertise that she was sharing at the conference where the four MasterClass founders sketched their plans.

‘We saw that clinicians really had no home to go to if they wanted to develop their expertise in managing Parkinson’s – or in setting up a service’, Sue said. By that time, having been involved in establishing numerous specialist nursing posts for Parkinson’s UK (then known as the Parkinson’s Disease Society), Sue could see clearly that the practical question ‘How do we do this?’ was being asked by clinicians but wasn’t being answered anywhere.

‘We set up a course, imagining it would be a one off, with clear, practical steps to setting up a service,’ she says. From templates and solutions outlined to an ongoing mentor when the clinician was back in the field, Sue and her colleagues set out to make sure the ‘How do we do this?’ question was thoroughly answered.

The very practical and supported technique continues in all of the MasterClasses today. ‘The MasterClasses are a unique, practical programme with tangible outcomes improving how people are managed in the NHS – it really delivers,’ Sue sums up succinctly.

Sue has always been an advocate of driving change through evidence, and has shared this with the hundreds of MasterClass clinicians she has mentored over the years as they develop local services. In the past this has often been ‘soft’ data: anecdotal evidence and patient experiences. More recently, however, she has spearheaded the use of ‘hard’ data and encourages the combination of things like Hospital Episodic Statistics (HES) data with patient’s stories to gain a more complete picture of services on the ground. This has been especially effective in evidencing the worth of service improvement. Sue has now established over 200 Parkinson’s nurse specialists posts over the years, many for graduates of the MasterClass programme.

‘Over 75% of MasterClass attendees have gone on to establish their own services, supported by a specialist nurse,’ she adds.

She is especially proud of sharing this passion through the MasterClass, helping clinicians understand how data can be used in the case for better services, and giving practical skills like how to read and interpret HES. ‘Data can be very powerful when it’s used at a local level – for clinicians to be able to talk to commissioners in their own language and give evidence through data is very powerful indeed.’ MasterClass attendees have always been encouraged to incorporate data gathering into their intermodule projects and lately hard data analysis has been common, with some course delegates focussing their projects on interpreting HES data to find solutions to local challenges or to evidence the problems they know exist.

Sue has had a passion for improving health services her entire career, with the past 20 years focussed entirely on that marriage of commissioning and service development that sees real change at a grassroots level. She firmly believes that we can make a difference to the lives and experiences of patients through service development.

‘We can grow new services; we can cultivate clinicians’, she says and her work through the MasterClass is just one way that she has determinedly ‘gardened’ the NHS, improving the lives of people with neurological conditions through service change.

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'The things you can't get from the books'

Parkinson's Academy, our original and longest running Academy, houses 19 years of inspirational projects, resources, and evidence for improving outcomes for people with Parkinson's. Led by co-founder and educational director Dr Peter Fletcher, the Academy has a truly collegiate feel and prides itself on delivering 'the things you can't get from books' - a practical learning model which inspires all Neurology Academy courses.