Is Healthwatch England, Barking up the wrong tree?

Call me simple-minded but it never bodes well for an organisation in my view, if WORD persists in underlining your name in red. I should know.

Nor does it bode well if your strategy doesn’t fit on one side of A4. If people can’t print it out they won’t read it. In my opinion.

But that’s just me. And that was really more of an aside.

Last week Healthwatch England published their first annual report as the nation’s consumer champion in health and social care.

Good for them.

I want Healthwatch England (HE) and their members to be successful and I think they are doing a difficult job in trying circumstances. Late to the party through no fault of their own. Surrounded by instability. It must feel like being the winch man dropped from an Air Sea Rescue helicopter into stormy seas.

Their annual report is an important document. They have obviously done a lot of thinking and groundwork ahead of it. This was an opportunity to up their visibility and they took it.

But I am not totally convinced by everything HE have broken the surface with. I am not sure the evidence presented supports the chosen mission, nor of the clarity of that mission.

Healthwatch England have proposed a push around nine consumer rights. They want people to find their voice in claiming those rights locally. But do we need new rights? We already have rights under the NHS Constitution. We have difficulty enough in embedding and making them visible in practice. Let alone any others. So this could get very confusing. Whether they can bring these two things together as they signal in the report remains to be seen.

I am also a little sceptical about what these rights say. Or rather what they don’t say. Rights are quite naturally articulated in terms of the status quo. So, often they do a good job of reflecting the current context, not the future. But we don’t want the status quo. That these rights align with key issues such as quality or improvement is not clear to me. What will the world look like from the health consumer’s point of view in a decade’s time?

Well, you have a chance to respond to HE’s consultation and I implore you to do so.

Small point – but there is little if no mention of research. Which is surprising given the new duties on local NHS organisations to promote and advance research. However, it explains why HE have been so elusive to me. I hope they correct this omission – fast! Please call.

I know some people have protested about the use of the word ‘consumer.’ I have less of a problem with it. But I do have a problem with the weakness of the link being made between involving people and the resulting improvement in service that would surely happen if we do that. Shouting ever louder usually ends up in little more than hoarse voices and throat infections. In fact, we have lots of consumer champions if we are honest. But very few consumer-led commissioning or delivery organisations. That’s the issue. If they make a difference here it would be great.

To all intents and purposes Healthwatch England is a membership organisation. Its influence will depend on how well it works with its network of members – local Healthwatch – to make changes that matter to people. It mustn’t get too ahead of them nor fall too far behind in identifying what these changes should be.

When I ran AMRC our membership was not too dissimilar to a church congregation. There were those charities who sang heartily in the choir for us. Others sat in the front pews, asking challenging questions but unwavering in their faith. Behind them were those who had been told they had a faith. And at the back were the quiet ones troubled for all sorts of reasons.

So, rights probably matter less at this point than development of their congregation and ensuring that all ‘consumers’ have a robust champion where they live. Judging by the level of engagement I have seen and heard about locally, that’s going to be tough.

For reasons that really don’t matter, I had cause to visit the Healthwatch Barking and Dagenham website at the weekend. I think it’s making a good fist of getting itself up and running from what I can see.

But it’s future health and that of its inhabitants, will depend as much on Healthwatch England Barking up the right trees as on what it can achieve on its own.

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