Macmillan cancer support: Information Support Roles, now and in the future

Macmillan Cancer Information and Support services (CISS) provide information with support accessible through services in hospitals, libraries and community services. Many CISS have just one staff member, who provides information and support to callers, telephone enquirers and professionals, alongside responsibility for planning, managing, developing and promoting the service.  Most CISS have created a range of information support roles, usually undertaken by volunteers, to complement that of the manager.  These range from ‘meet and greeters’, volunteers who provide a front-line welcome, administrative support, and information assistants providing information to a defined level, referring complex enquiries to the manager.

But the information manager role leaves little time for development work, such as creating partnerships that would extend the reach of the service, supporting good information provision and skills in the host organisation, or working with other information services to improve access to cancer information.  It can be difficult to spend time ensuring that management, stakeholders and commissioners understand the value of the service and the benefits to people affected by cancer and the wider organisation.  In challenging times, services that cannot demonstrate their value may not be sustainable.

How effective are support roles?

Support roles have often developed in response to local requirements.  But to plan the future workforce, we need to take a more systematic look at roles and the competencies they require, so that we can ensure the right training and support for all CISS team members to do their job well.

Macmillan is piloting a defined support role, the Information Support Assistant, to test its effectiveness in enabling Information Managers to develop partnerships and improve their services, including working with their host organisations and beyond to embed personalised information through Information Prescriptions.

ISA posts (3 full-time, 3 half-time) are being created for an 18-month pilot in 6 CISS locations. ISAs will maintain front-line services, answer any but the most complex enquiries, supervise volunteers and support the Information Manager in development work.  ISAs will start work early in 2013.

At the same time, we are developing an information and support competency framework, which will complement our new quality standards (MQuISS) and help us develop our future staff and volunteer workforce.

Testing the ISA role

The pilots will be systematically evaluated to achieve the best learning for future planning, with a baseline assessment of service activity including information prescription use and quality, and partnership working.  The evaluation will collect qualitative and quantitative data including patient and carer satisfaction and engagement with host trust and community teams and organisations, so robust audit and data collection is an early priority.  We will look at

  • Baseline assessment of the service: user satisfaction, provision of information prescriptions, engagement with the host organisation, external partnerships
  • Whether the ISA role helps this to improve
  • Whether the role improves the quality or efficiency of the service

Competencies and professional  development

The competency framework will enable us to recruit the right people and provide the best support.  But defining competencies and releasing information manager time also gives an excellent opportunity to look at professional development for our CISS managers.  We have analysed job descriptions, our MQuISS standards and existing competency frameworks to develop outline competencies for the managers, and this forms the basis of a development programme that will run alongside the ISA pilot.  Evaluating the programme will help us build evidence-based development for our managers.  Competencies for support roles will follow, so we can ensure we have the right training, support and guidance for the whole team.

Article by Mig Muller

Mig is the Quality Standards Development Manager at Macmillan Cancer Support