How will charities work with healthcare professionals this year?

We interviewed a number of people in health professional engagement roles to understand how their work has changed with the Covid-19 pandemic.
Fiona Wallace
 

For charities working in the health and social care sectors, engaging with healthcare professionals such as GPs, nurses and commissioners is crucial to improving care pathways for beneficiaries.

Between 7th and 17th July, we interviewed 6 people in healthcare professional engagement roles to understand how their work has changed with the Covid-19 pandemic.

The charities we spoke to engaged health professionals in a range of ways, from offering training and professional development, to providing resources for patients, to influencing health policy and the NHS Long Term Plan.

With almost all events and face to face work with health professionals on hold, some teams have been furloughed. However, the pandemic has also brought new opportunities for charities to collaborate with the NHS in ways that were previously challenging.

We’ve pulled together some of the key themes from interviews in this blog:

5 key findings

  1. Huge uptake in use of charity helplines by beneficiaries
  2. Healthcare professionals are generally harder to reach, but decision making is more efficient
  3. Online delivery is broadening charity support for healthcare professionals
  4. Co-production risks being sidelined
  5. Concerns that charity services could be the first to be cut by Clinical Commissioning Groups

 

Huge uptake in use of charity helplines by beneficiaries

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, more people have been calling charities for advice about health issues. Beneficiaries were unsure if they could contact their GP, so were asking questions that would normally have been fielded through primary care. This has put many charities under strain as many are not in a position to give medical advice.

Charities told us that calls have often been longer and more complex. One interviewee highlighted that there has been confusion over who should and shouldn’t be shielding, and what support would be available to those who are:

“At the start of lockdown, calls went through the roof. People were asking ‘What will it mean for me? Should I shield?’ We needed to sift through what their condition was, and what the latest guidance was for them.”

“Calls have been significantly longer and more challenging during the lockdown. With Parkinson’s not being on the extremely vulnerable shielding list, we’ve had a real issue with people not being able to get supermarket appointments, but still not being well enough to leave the house.”

Healthcare professionals are generally harder to reach, but decision making is more efficient

For many charities, it has become harder to get feedback from healthcare professionals on their work because NHS staff are so stretched. We heard from a mental health charity that has a clinical advisory group. They have had to “pick their battles” on what issues to raise with healthcare professionals.

Clinicians working in specialist roles (like Parkinson’s and Stroke) were redeployed into other departments. Charities are likely to continue to play a role in supporting beneficiaries who face delayed treatment and diagnoses, and in helping identify people who might be slipping through the cracks.

There have however been positives of working at a faster pace. Both charities and clinicians have had to be more flexible, meaning that key decisions are being made faster.

“It’s a doubled edged sword; healthcare professionals and officials at NHS England have a lot less time at the moment, which is understandable. At the same time we’ve been able to take a much more flexible approach. Things have been very fast paced and we’ve been able to affect change very quickly.”

Online delivery is broadening charity support for healthcare professionals

Several charities have started offering more online support to healthcare professionals, whether that was through peer support groups, wellbeing advice, or online training. For some, they have wanted to move more support online and responding to Covid-19 has been the push they needed. However, some teams are working at reduced capacity and are struggling to get up to speed on which online tools to use for their events and training.

“I’ve seen other people doing webinars. Unless we’re doing something really original, we’ll leave it for now, as we don’t have much capacity. If we’re doing virtual sessions, it’s about getting the right people there and making it engaging. I’m looking into a lot of platforms at the moment for events- it’s a bit of trial and error.”

NHS staff have been more restricted in which platforms they can use (mostly Microsoft Teams), which has sometimes been a challenge for engagement. However, some charities working on hospital discharge support have been able to better integrate with NHS systems. One charity is now linked in to onward email referrals from the hospitals they work in. Information governance has always been challenging, and now it seems there is a move to more trust, and there are agreements appearing on how to share information safely between charities and the NHS.

“Information governance has been a barrier in the past, even though we’ve shown that we have the systems in place to adhere to regulations. Because the NHS has now done a lot of work to grapple with getting online, I think they now understand that it’s ok [to collaborate].”

Co-production risks being sidelined

Charities working with vulnerable groups (such as autistic people, and people with mental health problems) are concerned that the voices of their beneficiaries will be sidelined. Some local health networks have ramped up their commitment to codesign with vulnerable groups. However, some interviewees said there is a big risk that some Covid-19 response services are being rushed through without adequate input from patients and charity beneficiaries:

“The flipside of things being quick and responsive is that we have seen autistic people not being involved in decisions as they would usually have been.”

Concerns that charity services could be the first to be cut by Clinical Commissioning Groups

Clinical Commissioning Groups make decisions about which services to fund in local areas. Commissioners will undoubtedly face difficult decisions over which services they fund in the coming years, and some charities are worried that their local contracts may be cut:

“Voluntary services are quite often the ones that are easy to wield an axe to […] I think in principle they understand that the voluntary sector keeps people away from statutory services. But when it comes down to it and they have to balance the books, they struggle to protect investment for it.”

Health professional engagement teams we spoke all wanted to know what the voluntary sector can do to best support healthcare professionals this year. We will be running some research with primary healthcare professionals to try and answer some of these questions in the next few months.

If you would like to hear more about our annual research with GPs, nurses and clinical commissioners to understand their priorities and how they have found their interactions with participating charities, please contact Heather at phm@nfpsynergy.net.

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