What's it really like?
Brian Shaffer works as a hospital porter in an NHS hospital in Central London. He tells us what life as a hospital porter is really like.
“I originally trained as a horologist (watch and clock maker), and then went on to work as a post room supervisor for a firm commodity brokers. I was first attracted to the role of a hospital porter because I could use many of the same skills I had already acquired. I could deliver a range of things, including post, to a number of different people in different locations. On a typical day at work I will perform tasks such as sweeping the grounds, transporting patients, dealing with the deceased, specimen collection, meal delivery and rubbish removal. This can be unpleasant at times, but is satisfying to get done, and there is an immediate end result. I enjoy the range of jobs that I can be asked to do, and the unpredictability of not knowing exactly what the day holds. I currently spend most of my time working in A&E, which can be hectic, but the time flies. Patient care is a significant aspect of my job; every day I help immobile, often very sick patients. I’ll take them for X-rays or for CT scans, and then back to their wards. Caring for them is extremely rewarding, and they are often very appreciative. I am supposed to work 37.5 hours a week, but during busy periods in the hospital I have done nearly 60 hours per week, including night shifts lasting 12 hours. Shift work can be incredibly tiring and at times stressful, but is to be expected if your workplace is open 24 hours a day. The upside, though, is that I get around 12 days off every month.
To deal with this erratic schedule, I’d say that you need to be flexible, hard working and able to function well in both the morning and at night. The main quality that a good hospital porter must possess, though, is patience. On evening shifts I have to deal with drunk people who are at times argumentative and offensive. I also have to deal with the deceased – young and old. Potential hospital porters have to be mentally prepared for this. If you are professional and remain positive, though, it is not hard to deal with.
Of course, I do get to meet some lovely, very friendly patients from all walks of life. Having a chat with them can brighten their day and yours. I work with about 20 other porters, and we work well as a team. I also know lots of other medical staff. That is one of the great things about a hospital environment – there are numerous people to get to know. If you have an interest in healthcare, and enjoy helping people, this could certainly be the job for you. I have always been content in my role, but have been working hard for around 45 years now, so am looking forward to retirement!”
A hospital porter moves patients, equipment and numerous other medical paraphernalia between the various areas of a hospital.
Hospital porters are essential in maintaining the smooth running of a hospital. A significant aspect of the job is patient care. They transfer patients to and from various locations, such as from the ward to the x-ray department. They also deliver patients’ meals and clear away their plates after they have finished eating.
Porters also provide emotional support to patients. They often have to comfort and reassure those who are feeling weak or distressed. Sometimes they also have to placate irritable or obstinate patients. The role is always varied and interesting though, as porters help people of different ages and from different walks of life daily.
Hospital porters also have the important job of moving vital, often extremely costly, equipment between the different departments of a hospital. They also distribute post, files and specimens.
Older people are encouraged to apply to be a hospital porter and, while there is no official minimum age for entry, the majority of those who apply are over the age of 18. This is perhaps related to the stressful nature of the job, which can be both physically and emotionally taxing. As well as moving dead bodies to the mortuary, porters have to clean wards and get rid of waste, which can include potentially harmful substances. Porters use a variety of specialist healthcare equipment, including, wheelchairs, trolleys and medical beds. Most use a radio pager, which enables their supervisor to contact them at all times.
Porters primarily work with patients, other porters and medical staff. They move throughout the hospital, but some are assigned to specific departments.
In the UK there are approximately 10,000 hospital porters working for the NHS and private hospitals.
Starting salaries in the NHS are, on average, £12,517 per year. With more experience hospital porters can earn £16,300. Team leaders and senior porters can expect to make £18,200. Private hospitals do not pay more.
Porters in London are paid more than those who work in the rest of the UK.
A porter’s daily tasks can include:
- Giving meals to patients
- Moving hospital furniture and electrical equipment
- Transporting clinical waste and dangerous materials
- Taking patients from their ward to consultations and back again
- Taking supplies to wards
- Distributing post throughout the hospital
- Delivering patients’ notes to the correct place at the correct time
- Taking dead bodies from operating theatres and wards to the mortuary
- Taking samples to laboratories
- Moving specialist apparatus around the hospital
In some hospitals tasks will include:
- Working on reception
- Supporting security staff
- Overseeing activities in the hospital car park
- Dealing with dirty linen and cleaning wards (there is often a separate team dedicated to doing this, to avoid cross-infection)
No formal qualifications are required to become a hospital porter, but recruitment tests involve an interview, a medical examination and sometimes a fitness test.
English Language GCSE at grade C or above may help, as hospital porters have to be proficient at reading and writing.
Another relevant qualification is the Diploma in Society, Health and Development aimed at 14-19 year olds. Students can gain concurrently literacy and numeracy skills, health sector knowledge, and also complete work experience placements.
Some NHS trusts run relevant apprenticeship schemes in health and social care, which may help you learn more about the job and the health sector generally. See the National Apprenticeship Service website for more information.
To explore the range of health sector courses available visit Skills for Health
Hospital porters need to possess the following skills:
- Ability to work quickly but calmly in emergencies
- Good interpersonal skills - the ability to listen and empathise
- Patience and tolerance
- Caring and sympathetic nature
- Physical fitness
- A flexible approach to work
- Ability to respect patient confidentiality
- Emotional resilience – as you are frequently faced with illness and death
- Ability to work under tight time constraints
- Willingness to follow instructions
The work can be physically demanding as porters are on their feet throughout the day, and often have to push wheelchairs and trolleys. In larger hospitals, porters may use electric vehicles to carry equipment.
On average, hospital porters work 39 hours per week. This includes evening, night and weekend shift work that is planned on a rota. Some porters may have the option to work part-time. A smaller proportion just work during the day.
Most of the working day is spent indoors, but hospital porters may have to travel between different buildings or locations.
Most of the time porters wear uniform. For some tasks, such as dealing with hazardous substances, they are given protective clothing.
Previous experience in healthcare, such as working in a nursing home as a care assistant, could put you at an advantage when applying for jobs. Any job in which you have worked with people is relevant.
To gain more experience, you could volunteer to shadow a hospital porter. Contact your local NHS trust to discuss available opportunities.
Vacancies come up in both large and small, NHS and private, hospitals. Competition can be intense in many parts of the country. There are also specialist agencies that supply porters to hospitals; many of these deal with permanent and temporary contracts.
After gaining sufficient experience, porters can move into managerial roles. Depending on the hospital, they could become a team leader or supervisor, and could then be promoted to the position of porter manager.
An advantage of the healthcare sector is that there are many roles into which you can move sideways. With the necessary training, a porter could move into nursing or become an ambulance technician, for example.
Furthermore, because hospital porters are needed in hospitals across the world, there is plenty of scope to gain experience working abroad.