“Sometimes, it can be confusing to know where to find the information you need on local health services”, reads a page on the NHS local website, which is at the hub of a collection of digital services for UK National Health Service (NHS) staff and citizens based in the West Midlands region, “so NHS local aims to connect citizens and staff to the best available online resources and information and, importantly, to each other.”
The NHS local digital service was created and is operated by Maverick Television. According to the company’s Digital Media Director, Jonnie Turpie, the service was inspired by another Maverick production and previous Healthcare Engagement Strategy Awards winner, Embarrasing Bodies, which broke new ground by combining entertainment, rich media and public health in an integrated television and digital experience.
“We’re delivering Embarrasing Bodies to massive public engagement, using [existing UK NHS resources] NHS Choices and NHS Direct as a backstop for quality assured information. Embarrasing Bodies has shown to the NHS that people want to engage with their health online, which allowed us to have a constructive conversation with them about how we could deliver that”, says Turpie.
Rich content and services
The digital service includes a breadth of rich content about health and healthcare in the region, as well as resources for NHS staff. ‘Near Me’ is a tool allowing citizens to locate their nearest health service by category and is available via the website and a location-based iPhone app.
Turpie explains that each new feature is an opportunity to demonstrate the usefulness of digital engagement to stakeholders. “‘Near Me’ is a simple service but it allows any user to find their nearest hospital, surgery, pharmacy, walk-in centre, online or on their phone. That’s been a bit of a breakthrough for the health service and we’ve encouraged that”, he says.
“And then at Christmas, we published data that’s available internally in the NHS, i.e. pharmacy opening times. The NHS as a whole knows when pharmacies are going to be open. All we’ve done this Christmas is to say ‘here you are’. We did quite a lot of good SEO [search engine optimisation] work to enable us to come top of the search ratings, so if people are in need of a pharmacy quickly on Christmas Day or Boxing Day, they can get it through NHS local. That’s the sort of very useful service that we’re bringing to bear.”
A progressive journey of engagement
Carl Plant, Online Community Manager for NHS local, says that most of the progress to date has been around getting people comfortable with new engagement channels. “Over the past year we’ve laid down the foundation of using digital and getting the NHS in the West Midlands to be confident that digital is the way forward”, he says, adding that services continue to be enhanced to serve citizens and NHS staff.
“We’re about to launch an e-learning platform dedicated to developing the workforce, and at the same time we’re going to be launching a service that will enable patients to make more informed choices around where they go for treatment, the clinicians they choose and the types of treatment they choose. We’re enabling patients to understand performance and also to leave their own opinions around their experience of healthcare in the West Midlands”, says Plant.
The move towards greater levels of engagement has been a progressive journey for NHS staff too. “What we’ve found over the past 18 months is that NHS staff are using digital outside of the workplace because that’s part of their daily lives, however integrating that within their working practice has always been a challenge”, says Plant. “So a lot of the work that we have done is to get some of the key people in the SHA [Strategic Health Authority] to actually start using some of these tools and technologies, and then they become advocates of digital.”
Technology and governance
Increasing the level of digital healthcare engagement has been challenging, according to Turpie, because of barriers in the form of both technology and concerns over risk. “It’s not been easy over the past ten years for people to access services, because of a lot of technological issues, but also a lot of risk issues, and quite rightly – health is extremely important to those delivering it and those receiving the services, so you’ve got to get that governance right”, he says, adding that the time invested to put in place robust digital governance policies has simplified the process of engagement for staff.
“We spent quite a lot of time working through a lot of issues, and one of those is around information governance, to make sure that we can be absolutely clear about the information and the engagement that we’re encouraging, but also to make it simpler and that’s one of the things that the staff are finding useful.”
Turpie says that one of the technological challenges was the existing healthcare system infrastructure, which was not designed for rich media like video content. “Things like video on health services has not been easy because health services systems have been set up to deliver X-ray images across the web and using their bandwidth for those sort of essential services, not information about engagement… it’s taken a lot of hard technological work behind the scenes but we’re now getting there.”
He adds that providing the digital service and engaging citizens has required that some existing technology ‘firewalls’ be opened up. “The NHS [IT] has been brought up with risk prevention, for obvious reasons, but actually we’re in a digital world that has got to encourage engagement that will lead to better health and better lifestyle, and better benefits if we get it right and make it easy. But we’re working through that process, and NHS local is the first external service that’s trying to do that.”
Responding to users
The website encourages feedback from users of the service, and Turpie says that responding to this is essential. “We committed right at the beginning to review the services on a 6-monthly basis, with the patients and staff, i.e. the users, in order to get feedback into the system and to enhance it, because digital moves on much quicker than many public sector services, but we’ve got to make this service responsive to our users. And we must keep it simple and easy.”
For breaking new ground in digital health service delivery we are pleased to award NHS local the Healthcare Engagement Strategy 2012 ‘Digital Health Services’ Award.