VISITORS to the Dolphin Centre in Poole may not know it, but there is a healthcare revolution going on within the walls of the shopping complex, just a few hundred yards from the front door of the hospital.

The vague sound of construction work is likely to be the only clue.

The second floor of Beales is quickly being transformed into a pioneering, high volume, community outpatients assessment clinic to treat tens of thousands of people from across Dorset, offering a range of vital services and making inroads into the long NHS waiting lists.

“This is unique," said Ashleigh Boreham, who is leading the groundbreaking project.

"There is nothing like it in anywhere else in the country. It's an at scale, easily accessible medical facility working side by side with, but separate from retail space. It will make a big difference to the lives of many, many of our patients.”

Ashleigh is the deputy director of design and transformation at Dorset Clinical Commissioning Group, working hand in glove University Hospitals Dorset which runs Poole and Bournemouth hospitals, and other partners.

He added: “The pandemic has made us think differently about what we do and how we do it. It has been the catalyst.

"Bold decisions have had to be made and this will have a significant impact on reducing the waiting lists that built up in the past 18 months.

"This is all about getting those numbers through because every single number on a waiting list is someone's life. For some. it will be lifesaving. For instance there are 22,000 women waiting for breast screening who we need to see."

The task is a huge one in Dorset as it for all England's hospital trusts.

At the end of August, UHD alone had 49,906 patients on its waiting lists, of who 3,408 were waiting more than 52 weeks.

In musculoskeletal for example (bones, joints, ligaments, tendons, muscles) an additional 800 patients a month could be seen in the new facility.

The first year estimate is that between 29,500 and 37,500 people might go through the Dolphin Centre outpatients department, 75,000 by the end of year two.

Ashleigh said: “This is absolutely a collaborative effort between the NHS, Beales, the owners of the Dolphin Centre Legal and General, the construction company CFES and many others. It’s the way forward and a real shared responsibility."

Once this is rolled out, similar but smaller projects are likely be set up in towns like Dorchester and Weymouth.

On Monday of last week, the entire second floor above the thriving department store had been cleared of stock and was empty.

Remarkably, by day four on Thursday, the main superstructure was already up, using plasterboard and steel frames repurposed directly from the decommissioned Nightingale hospital in Leeds.

The outpatients department is based on parallel lanes each dealing with a specific service, ophthalmology, musculoskeletal, breast screening and dermatology.

Others may come on stream, once things are up and running in December.

There is something of a military precision about this extraordinary operation, which is not entirely a surprise.

Ashleigh was a colonel in the Royal Army Medical Corps, serving tours in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans and well used to putting up field hospitals in conflict zones.

He also headed up the military advisory team that worked with the NHS to establish the Nightingale in London last year when it was feared the pandemic would overwhelm hospitals.

He was instrumental in setting up the Covid vaccination centre at BIC in Bournemouth,

Planning for the Dolphin Centre project began in March with a 'rehearsal of concept drill' with everyone involved - consultants, nurses, porters, managers, patients, the construction team, anyone with first hand experience of what would and would not work.

The department will be accessed through Beales' main entrance but there will be a separate escalator to the second floor.

Every patient will make their way along their lane and at the end of the streamlined check-in and administration process, see their specialist in one of 16 identical, high tech consulting rooms, where an informed decision will be made on the next steps.

For most patients, the whole visit will take no more than an hour, for the vast majority much less than that.

Ashleigh explained: "The big difference here is that everybody moves to the patient, not the other way round."

A small army of volunteer navigators will help NHS staff direct patients to the right lane, rather like the BIC operation.

Poole's location on the edge of the conurbation its good rail, bus and road links and the Dolphin Centre car park, all make it the ideal place for this community facility and patients will come from all parts of Dorset.

The chief executive of Beales, Tony Brown, said: "When I was first approached by Legal and General, our landlords, I wasn't entirely sure about the idea because this is retail space after all.

"But as we spoke it became more obvious to me this was the right thing to do, delivering something of real value to the community in so many different ways.

"The whole thing from a social enterprise point of view works really well and it is a fantastic example of public-private collaboration for the greater good."

Mr Brown believes the project will play a central role in the revitalisation of Poole town centre.

"The estimate is that there will be an additional 150,000 people coming into the town, patients, family members or friends who come with them and NHS staff.

"This will have a really positive social and economic effect for the town and its business community.

"There is more to revitalisation than just building flats, painting lampposts and putting up hanging baskets."

He added: "Once this is done, it will be a showcase. Others places are already looking at what we are doing here."