This week, we’re chatting to Francine Barrow, a qualified paramedic for an NHS Trust.
Francine’s entrepreneurial spirit recently prompted her to make a business venture out of her years of hard work by selling her homemade revision flashcards.
Here we learn a bit more about Francine, her struggle to become a paramedic and her interesting sideline.
How did you become a paramedic?
Being a paramedic was a childhood dream that I tried to realise several times throughout my career and only recently did the pieces fall into place. After leaving high school I needed to work to raise my daughter as a single parent and, without any formal qualifications, I pursued a career in sales. This avenue quickly led me to the recruitment industry where I progressed through the ranks but was thwarted by redundancy in 2002.
At this point, with financial security in place, I began to lay the foundations needed to embark on a career as a paramedic and obtained my NVQ 3 in Healthcare as a care assistant with Leeds Teaching hospitals. Soon afterwards, I was offered a place with Sheffield University on the paramedic course to commence the next intake which was a substantial achievement as only Sheffield and Hertfordshire had these courses available. Again, this wasn’t to be as mother-nature intended me to bring twins into the world, and so, I pushed back my dream for a second time.
What came next?
Following their birth, I was in a similar position and returned to the recruitment industry as I was able to earn a good income. With all hopes of becoming a paramedic dissolved, I moved up the career ladder as consultant, senior and then recruitment manager until the recession hit and redundancy for a second time in 2009. With still very small children to provide for, I went about investing my redundancy money into a business with my sister, a theatrical costumier, providing bespoke costumes for film, theatre and fancy dress. The business developed over the course of two years and went from strength to strength as it evolved into a retail outlet, ecommerce and trade industry supplier. It is still trading but is wholly run and operated by my sister following the setup of my next project
Having made key industry contacts and shown evidence of my entrepreneurial mind, I was approached to start-up and run my own recruitment agency which led to the birth of Search Recruitment in 2011. Knowledge, contacts and former clients within recruitment afforded me the ability to hit the ground running and very soon, the business was placing multiple staff each month and had several high value contracts for temporary and permanent personnel.
Just over a year later, having met and exceeded the challenge of establishing a new company, I still felt incomplete and unsatisfied. After a period of self-analysis and evaluating my ambitions and career plan, the time felt right to pursue my unrealised dream of becoming a paramedic and I put all of my effort into making this happen.
That must have been difficult...
I reduced my working hours and pursued an Access to Higher Education and Functional Skills qualification to give me the core academic standards needed to gain entry into university, in addition to part time work in a PTS Control Room and volunteering for St John’s Ambulance. In February 2012, my local ambulance service launched their first recruitment drive to hire student paramedics and at the same time, the enrolment for Staffordshire University FDsc Paramedic went live. I was fortunate enough to be offered places on both programmes and elected to pursue the opportunity with the ambulance service in April 2013 as this ensured I was maintaining an income to provide for my family and receiving an NVQ style of training as it was tech-para based over 3 years. In June 2015, I graduated from Staffordshire University with a Distinction in Paramedic Science and finally achieved my childhood ambition of becoming a HCPC registered paramedic.
Which aspects of your job have you found to be the most rewarding?
It is impossible to list the amount of rewards associated with being a paramedic. I feel incredible pride in my role as I know that every patient I encounter has a positive experience at my hands in the most terrifying of times. However, the most rewarding element of the training itself is the knowledge gained throughout the programme and continually learning during each shift.
...and the most challenging...?
Again, there are so many challenging aspects of the day-to-day role and significant frustration when you are unable to help patients due to disjointed services. In relation to the training, the hardest and most challenging was time management. It proved very difficult to undertake the hours required and produce the standard of work for university.
How did you come up with the idea of the flashcards?
The idea of flashcards came about during my Access to HE course as I quickly realised that reading a textbook chapter or article daunted and overwhelmed me. To manage this, I would read a paragraph then assimilate the information and regurgitate it into a few sentences to revise at a later date. Looking at my work, it made sense to me to separate the paragraphs on to manageable cards that I could take everywhere and learn on the go as my lifestyle dictated that I was unable to sit and study.
Starting the IHCD technician course, I followed on with this tactic as it had worked so well for me before and began writing cards to help me through the teaching provided i.e. A&P, Drugs and Signs and Symptoms. When I brought the cards into the classroom, my colleagues would gather around and we would share them out to test each other which also allowed us to hear others' answers, embedding the information more deeply. All but one person on Cohort 1 of the Student Paramedic programme passed all of the exams and many, including myself, believe that was down to hard work and the help of the flashcards.
Since this style of learning had worked during the University phase of my training, I added to the original IHCD cards to enhance them and include the increased learning provided by the lecturers, textbooks and my previous experience as a technician.
And what gave you the idea of turning them into a business?
As entrepreneurial as I am, I cannot take credit for turning these into a business as in essence, they aren’t. Having seen people post their used textbooks onto Facebook, I decided to advertise my original set of cards and actually had them listed as ‘open to offers’ as I was unable to value them given how much time and effort went into their construction. The idea was to help another student and recycle the information rather than let them gather dust.
After a few hours, an enormous amount of people wanted to purchase them and I was unable to pick one ‘worthy’ person to receive my years of hard work. Several people suggested getting them copied rather than selecting one buyer so I agreed to investigate this option thinking they would copy easily at a printers. Unfortunately, the thickness of the card and the fact they were double sided meant that printers wouldn’t take the job on as it was too time-consuming to stand and turn each card over to copy them repeatedly. Still unable to choose one person and getting numerous messages pleading to be the recipient of the cards, I set about typing each card into a template so that the printing companies would be able to print them off in batches and I wouldn’t be letting any students down.
After several long days at the computer and 19000 words later, I had produced 212 cards with over 850 questions and answers. At this point, I was able to get them printed at a more realistic cost due to the man hours having been dramatically reduced. The standard of work I do is always of a high quality and it was important for me that the cards looked and felt professional so display boxes, watermarks, and logos were implemented and good quality card purchased to ensure these are functional for many years and many students.
As mentioned, this is not a business venture because there's no real financial gain and the profit margin is so low. When advertising the cards, I have been very clear about the costs associated with producing them, packaging, posting and the fees in selling them. There is a few pounds clear profit against the costs after posting but in some cases, there's none at all if I'm posting to Ireland, the Channel Isles or abroad. Plus, I have spent a phenomenal amount of time on this project and find many hours every day is spent responding to questions or communicating with people who are interested in the cards' contents.
That sounds like a lot of work..
As well as sourcing suppliers, chasing orders, fetching materials, troubleshooting deliveries, wrapping and posting the orders, my time and that of my family has not been factored in! I've managed this in addition to working full time for WMAS which has been incredibly challenging but my fundamental goal is to help the next generation of paramedics.
How many have you sold so far and have you received much feedback from the people who have already bought them?
So far, there are approx 200 sets of cards in circulation and the feedback has been phenomenal. The hardest part with producing the cards is that I needed to reiterate to people that these were produced and written during my training and I am not an academic writer nor have I been published. My fear is that students may rely solely on the contents of the cards to study, but this is not their function. I want to emphasise that there may be the occasional spelling error and there will certainly be stronger academic answers, but the functionality of the cards is in their portable nature, content to quiz yourself and others and that the leg work has been taken out of producing their own. None of these cards should replace learning from textbooks, reading articles, studying independently and listening to lectures of course.
What’s next for you?
I have made a professional decision to pursue an additional qualification in HR management. During my role as a paramedic, I have realised that helping patients one at a time isn’t enough and I firmly believe that I can change the way the ambulance services are managed and run thereby helping thousands of patients at a time. I feel that senior management teams have lost visibility and perspective of the issues related to staff experience and morale within the ambulance service which is having direct and indirect impact on patients and staff welfare. In order to be considered in years to come for a senior management opportunity that allows me to direct strategy, policy, research and change-management, additional and related qualifications are needed in conjunction with operational experience to add credibility to my repertoire.
We’ll be using a set of Francine’s Flashcards at Medic Now to test our new recruits. If you are interested in purchasing a set, visit Francine’s Facebook Group Page Paramedic Revision Cards.