Maximising the value of public engagement

Source: NHE Jan/Feb 17

Jane Mordue, the newly appointed permanent chair of Healthwatch England, explains why listening to feedback from the public is much more likely to help NHS and social care leaders make the right decisions the first time.

At Healthwatch we base our understanding of how the NHS and social care services are doing, and how they should look to improve, exclusively on what we hear from the people they serve. It’s a simple but also very powerful concept, and one that other sectors invest huge sums of money in. 

As a network we are still relatively young, just 3¾ years old to be exact. But one of the things that has become clear to me in our short history is the growing appetite of the public to get involved and to share their views with us. 

Last year alone the 152 local Healthwatch across England visited more than 3,500 GP surgeries, hospitals and care homes, and collectively gathered the views of a staggering 385,000 people to create an unrivalled source of qualitative intelligence about consumer experience of local services. 

Recognising the stress on the NHS 

Although the feedback they gather covers every bit of the health and care sector, from the challenges of finding a dentist to how people feel about patient records being used for research, there is one message that runs through all of it. People tell us they recognise the huge stress on the NHS and have noticed the negative impact this is having on their care. At the same time they express concern that hard-working doctors, nurses and carers will burn themselves out. Importantly, they are clear about their desire to help fix things. 

It is really encouraging that at the same time as people are showing greater willingness to get involved, so too are the policymakers and professionals showing greater appetite to listen. 

Through the work of local Healthwatch, for example, we have seen extensive involvement of children and young people in the development of commissioning specifications for mental health services in Bristol. In Cumbria we have seen local Healthwatch address some of the difficulties around changes to maternity services by creating a platform for those with recent experience to shape the revised proposals. And in Oxfordshire we have seen how the feedback gathered about people’s experiences of discharge have helped the local hospital transform its record on delayed transfers of care. 

But this is just the start. With the emergence of massive service change programmes like the sustainability and transformation plans (STPs) and continuing debates around integration and devolution, the demand for public involvement is on the rise, and local Healthwatch are increasingly seen as the key facilitators. Healthwatch England is, therefore, changing how it operates to support them. 

Ongoing Healthwatch changes 

Over the last year, for example, we have been working with national bodies to ensure they promote through their networks the value local Healthwatch bring, and that they embed this in the guidance they issue around public involvement. We have also been pushing the need for the system not just to listen, but also to tell people what has changed as a result of their feedback. 

We have already put in place additional training to help build capability and worked with local Healthwatch to develop ways for them to understand how they are performing. This year we will be building on this by providing opportunities for local Healthwatch to peer review one another. We will also be looking at the different types of models used to deliver local Healthwatch to ensure every area has as effective a Healthwatch service as possible. 

Finally, in Healthwatch England we have spent time revamping our own internal capabilities to collect and analyse the wealth of information gathered by the network so we can better inform the likes of the Department of Health, NHS England, NHS Improvement and the Care Quality Commission about patient experience across the country. Over time, this new intelligence-based approach will lead to the views people share locally directly influencing national policy decisions.  

We may only be a modest team in terms of our resources, but with the network behind us Healthwatch is a real asset for the health and care sector in the big conversations ahead. What we have to say can be challenging at times, but one thing is guaranteed: listening to feedback from the public is much more likely to help NHS and social care leaders make the right decisions first time. 

So if you want to know more about the experiences in your communities or get them involved in redesigning services, remember Healthwatch is open for business.

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