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Guide to becoming a health care assistant

Portrait of a doctor and his assistant in his studio

Health care assistants (HCAs) are an essential part of the nursing team, delivering hands-on care in a wide variety of settings, including hospitals, GP surgeries, nursing homes and the community. HCAs commonly work alongside nurses, who delegate health care duties to them, and are sometimes known as health care support workers, clinical support workers, nursing assistants or nursing auxiliaries.

Typical duties of a health care assistant

Your daily tasks as a HCA will depend on where you work and the type of patients or clients you look after. Typical duties may include:

  • Helping people with washing, dressing and toileting
  • Serving meals and helping with feeding if necessary
  • Using mobility aids and equipment to help lift and move patients safely
  • Making and changing beds
  • Turning patients who are confined to bed to avoid pressure sores
  • Measuring and recording patients’ weight, temperature, pulse and breathing
  • Chatting with patients to help put them at ease
  • Tidying the ward or patients’ homes and keeping supplies and equipment in order
  • Working with other health and social care professionals to deliver individual care plans
  • Advising and helping families with their new caring responsibilities
  • Helping clients with general housework tasks, such as shopping and paying bills

Personal qualities

A friendly, compassionate and caring approach are essential qualities for any HCA. Patience, a sense of humour, and a respectful approach towards people from all backgrounds is also important. Prospective employers want to see that you can follow health and safety guidelines, will work well in a team and can use your own initiative.

Experience of care work will help support your application. This could be through volunteering with an organisation that supports vulnerable people, work experience, or caring for a relative. Contact local charities or visit the Do-it, NHS Volunteering and Volunteering England to search for volunteering opportunities. Some HCAs enter the job through an apprenticeship scheme.

Qualifications you need

There are no formal entry requirements to become an HCA, though some employers may ask for evidence of literacy and numeracy skills. Having a GCSE or a qualification in health or care will give you an advantage. For some HCA roles, employers want applicants to hold a QCF qualification at level 2 or 3 (e.g. in Healthcare Support Services or Clinical Healthcare Support) while others will support HCAs to study for these qualifications once they start work.

Depending on the role, your employer may carry out background checks through the Disclosure and Barring Service to make sure that you’re suitable to work with vulnerable adults and children.

Training you will receive

You will receive on-the-job training for the skills you need, depending on the role. For example, the skills required to work in a GP surgery will be different for working in a nursing home. Your training is likely to cover communication and confidentiality skills, clinical hygiene, personal care, health and safety, how to lift and move patients safely, taking and recording weight, temperature, pulse and breathing. You may also be required to attend external courses, such as first aid and food hygiene.

Working hours and conditions

Working hours vary depending on the type of role, and may include nights, weekends or split shifts. HCAs working at a residential location may be required to stay overnight on a rota basis. Those working in the community may need to travel between patients’ home, and a driving licence is required for some jobs. Part-time and flexible working is often available.

Income

Starting salaries in the NHS are between £15,000 and £18,000 a year. With experience and additional skills, specialist support workers can earn £20,000 a year. A higher hourly rate is sometimes paid for night shifts, weekend work and bank holidays. Some jobs come with free or low-cost accommodation.

Further opportunities

Many HCAs go on to become assistant practitioners, working in the community or on hospital wards under the supervision of nursing staff. Those who obtain the Level 3 Diploma in Healthcare Support Services or Level 3 Diploma in Clinical Healthcare Support, may be able to apply to train as a healthcare professional, for example, as a nurse, midwife, radiographer or dietitian.

HCAs working at a senior level may be able to obtain a secondment from their employer onto a pre-registration programme at university, where they can study part-time to become a healthcare professional. Check with your employer to find out more.

Image Copyright: Minervastudio, Shutterstock.com

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