When nurse Amy Noble noticed that one in five of her patients on a Highland respiratory award were being re-admitted within 28 days of discharge, she started to feel uneasy.

Most of them were suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) - an umbrella term for a group of lung conditions which cause breathing difficulties.

Over time the re-admission rate on Ward 7A at Raigmore hospital in Inverness had crept up from around 14% - similar to national averages - to 20% by 2018.

"That was enough to make us feel a bit uncomfortable and to want to take a closer look at it," said Ms Noble, who was the ward's senior charge nurse at the time.

"It wasn't a drastic change, there wasn't a huge alarm bell - it was just a gradual creeping up.

"We were starting to see a lot of familiar faces coming back into the ward and a lot of these patients were living with chronic illness, primarily COPD.

"That gets worse over time with one of the primary symptoms being breathlessness. I can only imagine that must be one of the most terrifying symptoms to experience.

"It was something that we really wanted to see whether we could do something about.

"Not only to stop people coming back into hospital, but to improve the quality of their lives."

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Five years on, the ward's readmissions rate has been cut to 5% and 37-year-old Ms Noble has been named Scotland's Nurse of the Year for spearheading an initiative with the charity Chest, Heart and Stroke Scotland (CHSS) which helped to reverse the trend.

The idea was fairly simple: CHSS already had a support line to help patients manage their symptoms at home, but the problem was that few were making use of it.

"We know that patients are notoriously bad for accessing support if they have to initiate it themselves - especially people living in remote and rural communities," said Ms Noble.

The Herald: Amy Noble, pictured outside Raigmore hospital in Inverness where she has been based since 2008Amy Noble, pictured outside Raigmore hospital in Inverness where she has been based since 2008 (Image: Peter Jolly)

The team decided to tweak the service so that nurses could directly refer any patients they had concerns about - including people being re-admitted with 28 days - directly to the CHSS helpline.

With their consent, the patients' details would be shared so that support and advice could be tailored to them, including proactive phonecalls from CHSS to check how they were managing at home.

Within six months the re-admission rate had slipped back down to 8%.

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Ms Noble said: "It wasn't just the readmission statistics.

"Of course that was our overall aim, but we wanted to make sure there were really good quality outcomes for our patients.

"The feedback from them was really centred around feeling listened to, feeling valued, feeling less of that social isolation and loneliness that they were perhaps experiencing before.

"They knew that they were able to pick up the phone and ask for advice should they be feeling a worsening of their symptoms, rather than phoning 999 for example.

"We could see that in the data before we launched the project: a lot of our patients with COPD were in a state of panic when they felt breathless and the first thing they would do was dial 999.

"It often transpired that a lot of patients weren't actually having a flare up of their disease - they were suffering from panic."

Originally from Shetland, Ms Noble caught the nursing bug after taking a part-time job as a healthcare support worker at the island's Gilbert Bain hospital when she was in her final year of school.

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Aged 17, she moved to Aberdeen to study at Robert Gordon University before moving to Inverness as a qualified nurse in 2007, taking up a post at the Royal Northern Infirmary - a community hospital - before transferring to Raigmore a year later.

Described by colleagues as "energetic and inspirational", Ms Noble is now married with two young sons and most recently has been tasked with helping to set up NHS Highland's first ever infectious disease unit.

The Herald: Amy Noble, pictured in respiratory Ward 7A at RaigmoreAmy Noble, pictured in respiratory Ward 7A at Raigmore (Image: Peter Jolly)

She said it was "lovely and heartwarming" to read the tributes and anecdotes from those who had nominated her to be the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) Scotland's first ever Nurse of the Year. 

She added: "It was lovely to read stuff that I think is fairly normal, nothing necessarily special, just everyday work to me, but that you're bringing that real energy and positive vibe to the ward.

"It was really lovely to hear that that did have such a positive impact on others.

"There were funny stories, heartwarming stories, and some lovely patient encounters that will probably go down in history."