A new ‘independent consumer champion for health and social care’ - that’s how Healthwatch West Sussex is being billed.
The social enterprise, which held a celebratory launch event at the Drill Hall, Horsham last Friday, replaces West Sussex LINK in a bid to give patients, or consumers as we are now dubbed, a voice.
Set up by a Dorset-based charity Health and Care in partnership with West Sussex Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB), Healthwatch boasts an independent board and is one of 152 new Healthwatch organisations nationwide.
However, they have not all been set up in the same way and the relationship with CAB in West Sussex is a ‘brilliant’ development according to Frances Russell, the chair of the local watchdog’s board.
For the first time people can talk about their issues with any aspect of the health and social care system to an independent body in confidence, which in turn will record and aggregate information in order to try and effect change.
“I think the relationship with CAB is going to be brilliant,” said Mrs Russell, who retired as chief executive of the Sussex Weald and Downs NHS Trust 12 years ago.
“CAB is a well know trusted organisation, and people respect them for confidentiality, and people won’t be alarmed to go and talk to them, whereas having to go and talk to your doctor and complain to your doctor about him or her is actually quite frightening.”
Carol Groves, chief executive of Arun and Adur CAB was also enthusiastic about the new relationship, saying: “It is exciting because we have the high street presence with 11 centres in West Sussex and clients can come in with their stories, good or bad.”
The objective is to turn anecdotal information about health and social care into actionable data that can be presented to the new decision-makers in the ongoing shake-up of health services.
“We’ve got a seat at all the tables and by right we are sitting on the new Health and Wellbeing Board,” added Mrs Russell.
How independent though is Healthwatch in reality from health and social care providers, and how effective will NHS career professionals truly be in representing the voice of the public?
Healthwatch West Sussex is entirely funded by West Sussex County Council (WSCC), although the money is routed via the charity Health and Care.
Mrs Russell stressed ‘we are the independent voice of the public - we are not West Sussex County Council’ after clarifying that ‘funding has to come from somewhere’ and that WSCC chose not to employ its own body as other local authorities have done.
The Healthwatch manager for West Sussex David Liley, like Mrs Russell, has spent his entire professional life working in the health sector, specifically psychiatry and child protection, and he addressed the challenge they may face when having to now represent the public, not the clinicians or system.
“There are lots of people like me who have become involved in Healthwatch who have got long careers in health and social care, and now we have to start looking at things, not even from the patients’ perspective, but from the consumers’ perspective – thinking about not just the service users, as patients, but actually as consumers who want services to be fit for purpose.”
But can former NHS managers, embroiled in the intricacies of the NHS and social care for years, represent the public interest without overly sympathising with a health managers’ perspective?
“I think we have to and that was something I really had to ask myself,” added Mrs Russell. “I have been a chief executive in the NHS, and having actually closed a number of organisations, I did actually have to ask myself how am I going to feel when the public ask for something that actually clinically I know is not the right thing to ask for?”
The watchdog chair gave the emotive example of A+E where clinicians widely champion fewer specialist trauma centres, but the public nearly always wants emergency services closer to home.
However, she remained ‘confident that as an organisation we can take the public view in’.
“We won’t always win on behalf of the public,” she added, “but we can influence the changes so they are done in a way that the service delivery is good.”
By Theo Cronin | email@example.com | 01403 751 233 | Do you have a story?
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