RESPLENDENT in their grey uniforms, discharge co-ordinators are a small but increasingly vital part of the Royal Gwent Hospital workforce.

The timely discharge of medically fit patients is essential to the smooth running of a hospital no matter what time of the year - but when demand increases during the winter, it is even more of an imperative.

Discharge co-ordinators pave the way for patients to go home by carrying out a variety of tasks, from ensuring that care and support packages are in place for patients, to ensuring they are discharged at an appropriate time of the day.

They also help organise transfers, for instance if a patient requires a period of rehabilitation at a different hospital.

In itself, the role is nothing new but has more traditionally been carried out by nursing staff as part of their duties.

At the Royal Gwent however, none of the discharge co-ordinators are qualified nurses, but instead are tasked specifically to plan patients' discharges or transfers, a process that begins on admission.

Aneurin Bevan University Health Board had led the way in making the role a dedicated one, freeing up nursing staff on the Royal Gwent's medical wards so they can concentrate on delivering care.

So successful has the process been that discharge co-ordinators are being introduced at Nevill Hall Hospital in Abergavenny, and at Ysbyty Ystrad Fawr in Ystrad Mynach.

By the end of this month, the Royal Gwent will have 10 discharge co-ordinators, or dis-cos for short, covering all medical wards, in specialties such as care of the elderly, gastroenterology, endocrine and cardiology.

"They make referrals to, and liaise with, other health professionals, and with social services. They chase up and challenge, and make sure things happen in a timely way," said Diane Murray, directorate manager for medicine at the Royal Gwent.

"They make a connection with patients and their families. They have their own wards and patients - 25-30 at a time on their caseloads - and have plans for every patient which they follow through.

"They have been very well received by doctors and nurses. People are spending less time in our beds, they are going home more quickly, and they are going home earlier in the day.

"Complaints about discharges, and complaints generally, have gone down since we began to employ them.

"Nurses must prioritise clinical care, and there used to be a lot more delays in the discharge process. Now, everyday, something is happening to make sure that when patients are well, they can go home."

A year ago, patients in the care of the elderly category had an average length of stay in hospital approaching two weeks, but since the introduction of discharge co-ordinators this has been reduced by four days.

Endocrine patients stay in the Royal Gwent an average two-and-a-half days less than they did a year ago, while since last May average lengths of stay in gastroenterology and cardiology have fallen by one-and-a-half days.

Dr Kirsten A'Bear, and deputy ward sister Yasmin Nassa, who work on a care of the elderly ward, are convinced that discharge co-ordinators are "vital."

"They help make patients' journey through the hospital a much smoother process, and have a plan for patients when they are medically fit," said Dr A'Bear.

Ms Nassa said having a discharge co-ordinator in the team "has been fantastic" and "frees up the nursing staff to deliver nursing care."

Jade Matthews, who manages the gastroenterology ward, said the discharge co-ordinator role is "fantastic."

"It is huge support to nurses, because there are not enough hours in the day to do it all," she said.

"Since they were introduced, the turnover of discharges has been much better, much safer."

Margaret Pead, who represented the Llanyrafon South ward on Torfaen council for more than 20 years until 2012, was admitted to the Royal Gwent early in the New Year with suspected pneumonia.

She has had regular contact with discharge co-ordinator Julie Ford, and is looking forward to going home.

"The care I've received has been fantastic, and it's important to have someone helping to arrange things for when you're ready to go home. It's a great idea," she said.

Similar sentiments were expressed by Teresa Sweeting, a gastroenterology patient who has daily contact with discharge co-ordinator Claire Long.

"If it helps get me home more quickly, that has to be a good thing," she said.

For Julie Ford, her role as a discharge co-ordinator follows spells with social services, a private care company, and as a forensic mental health support worker at St Cadoc's Hospital.

"This is a very busy but very rewarding role, and it's great to help patients out of hospital when they are ready to go," she said

For Luci Watts Wassall, the role is "very challenging and busy" but she is in no doubt about the benefits to patients.

"It makes a huge difference. We can help to get them home safer, faster, and at a proper time of the day," she said.

Claire Long said patients like seeing discharge co-ordinators on the ward, and that good communication is vital.

"Patients are keen, as they know we are trying to get them home more quickly. I do feel we make a difference," she said.

Jane Harley, a discharge co-ordinator in cardiology, was involved in bed management for 18 years, and has seen the role move from an office onto the wards.

"You have more rapport with staff and patients, and it gives patients a good experience. They see us every day and get to know us," she said.

"But it is all about teamwork, working closely with the consultants, doctors and nurses as part of a team."