A day with NHS Digital

Our NHS has been a major talking point across the country this year. Work to mark its 70th birthday continues, as is the work to sustain it for another 70 years. It’s a key challenge facing No. 10, Whitehall and Skipton House. Whilst we don’t yet have the answer, it’s clear that digital transformation will play a leading role.

Communication is critical to the development, implementation and success of digital enablers in the NHS. This is true both in terms of encouraging people to use existing digital services – such as GP online services – to the more long-term opportunities enabled by technology. A paper-free NHS and integrated patient records. Smartphone apps and digital clinical engagement. The widespread use of digital medicines. Remote monitoring and care, such as harnessing the Internet of Things to improve prevention.

Successful multi-platform communication and engagement campaigns are needed to make all of these possible. People need to know about them and also need to have faith in them. It’s an old adage, but many of these need communications to help win hearts and minds.

NHS Digital – Shadow Me programme

That’s why I was delighted to take part in NHS Digital’s ‘Shadow Me’ programme, launched by Rachel Royall, Director of Communications. Objectives were two-way: for me to see first-hand the challenges facing a national body’s Director of Communications, but also to recommend ideas from my own experience.

It was quite the day to shadow. Media had broken a confidential story the day before. The Secretary of State was visiting its offices later that week. Important changes affecting patient interactions with the NHS were being planned. All issues that are vital to the organisation’s reputation. All areas that will support efforts to give the NHS a clean bill of health for the future.

Despite the external priorities, Rachel also found time to liaise with the different elements of the communications team, who are split between London and Leeds. She also found time to introduce new starters. The emphasis on internal communications and professional development was clear to see – not least by involving me in such a hands-on way.

So, what key lessons did I learn about being a Director of Communications in the NHS?

  1. Never let a media issue get in the way of your people. In fact, do the opposite. Wherever possible, use it as a chance to provide valuable learning opportunities for your team – it’s invaluable development experience.
  2. Crisis comms? Lead from the front. At all levels. Your leaders need you to provide your expertise, experience and guidance calmly in the face of a crisis. Highlight tangible implications and scenarios and demonstrate how you’re handling them.
  3. In-house communications consultancy, on demand. I was reminded how communication teams span pretty much every workstream in an organisation. It’s a vital enabler across all the major programmes. Comms professionals on the agency side should always remember how much time their clients/in-house comms leaders and teams spend advising their colleagues across the organisation and representing their team internally. It’s not all about your project!
  4. Does comms have a role here? Almost always the answer is yes. Think about the programme in the context of the end user. How will it land? Always strive to get communications at the table from the outset.
  5. Develop new leaders. Perhaps by launching a shadowing programme! It provides valuable insights and learning and brings tangible benefits for both parties.

Written by James McCollum, Associate Director, Barley Communications. With thanks to Rachel Royall, Director of Communications, NHS Digital, for providing us with the opportunity to shadow for the day.