A personal view by Rob Young, Creative Writer

My name is Rob and I’m a writer. I’ve spent the past 20 years writing for the UK’s biggest film, TV and theatre companies including the BBC, Channel 4 and National Theatre. I am also a Faculty Associate at NHS Research & Development North West where I help clinicians communicate on issues such as self-harm and FGM. In a world of health professionals, I’m a ‘health amateur’, someone who can see things, clearly, from a patient’s point of view.

I’m also a Dad. My son is ten. He’s a bright spark who makes films, slideshows and stop- motion animations. He shares them online, on WhatsApp, on whatever platform works best. He has no fear of all things digital and finds the process liberating. He is not an exceptional child in this respect but like most of his peers, finds interaction the most natural thing in the world. To me, this lack of fear is amazing. Even the leaflets that he knocks up at junior school, look like they’ve been produced by an advertising agency… and he’s ten! So why is it, that health professionals find communication so challenging?

There has never been a better time to share information. Technology is cheap, quick and easy to use. If you can use Microsoft Word, you’re overqualified. We live in a noisy world where everyone and every thing is clamouring for our attention, so like it or not, we have to compete. You cannot buy a potato without being asked:

  • Would you like to follow it on Twitter?
  • Join its mailing list?
  • Do you want to know where it was sourced?

If a humble potato be that proactive then surely, we can too.

Yet in the NHS, we still communicate in the style of a Victorian schoolteacher. At conference, we stand in front of a slide full of text so small, it’s impossible to read. Sometimes these are ‘jazzed up’ with Clip Art stick men from the 1980’s. Without any training in the craft of writing or presenting, we deliver our rambling monologues. The platform we offer our Bright Young Things is the ‘poster presentation’. Our leaflets lack impact and our PPI is peppered with so much jargon that the public find challenging to understand (they don’t even know what PPI is). The NHS is a phenomenal organisation but in terms of communication, I think we could do better.

The irony is, the NHS is full of positive, pro-active stories that we can all learn from, the vast majority of which never make it into the public domain. Imagine how many ‘good news moments’ are generated by our 1.5 million staff? Every day? And when do we hear them in the media?

Last week, I had the privilege of attending the final day of an AQuA Leading Integrated Teams (AQuA LIT) leadership development programme, where a disparate group of health professionals shared their personal journeys. It was wonderful. I felt so proud that by the time I left the building, I was three inches taller.

With a room full of veteran clinicians, the bar was always going to be high. For all their warmth and good people skills, I was well aware these were tough cookies, with big brains and massive in-trays. These people save lives, manage teams and every one of their thousand daily decisions directly affects a human being, sometimes hundreds at a time, because, as one reminded me, “We are all patients”.

It’s a credit to the participants that for all their experience, they had begun this course with an open mind. Over 400 years of NHS experience in the room (you could almost hear it buzz) and yet every person still fresh enough to learn.

We all want to improve but to do so, we must first reveal the area where we need help. In the NHS, that takes guts. That the participants embraced their own ‘areas for improvement’ with such good will was a humbling experience.

Great swathes of society are bolted to the myth that health professionals know everything and can fix everything, when clearly that is impossible. We all need time to try, fail (in a safe arena) and improve upon our experience. In the absurdly busy life of a clinician, it’s particularly important that we take time out to learn.

We all know that big research projects can take well over a decade to reach the ward, but there are many smaller improvements that we can implement next week to improve efficiency, cut costs and boost impact. These are the real-world, practical templates of behaviour that the AQuA team share with such grace. They don’t teach leadership, they inspire it.

In one respect that’s not surprising, as much of their craft is based on the firm bedrock of compassionate leadership laid out by Professor Michael West – but it was the execution that I found particularly impressive. Su Fowler-Johnson and Dr Claire Harris created a warm and welcoming vibe that allowed the participants to feel safe, so their journey could begin.

I saw two groups that day, one starting out and the other at its close. The was a stark contrast between the two, the former nervous, the latter proud. I envied the former because I’ve seen, first-hand, how this course, now in its fourth incarnation, makes people bloom. It’s remarkable. I yearned to reassure each new recruit that their leap of faith was a terrific decision but of course, they must find that out for themselves.

As for those at the end of their AQuA journey, and the beginning of another, it is impossible to sum up how proud I felt. We live in a world where quantitative data is paramount, but there are some things that defy the notion of ‘price’. For example, one of the senior clinicians was about to retire, after a long and credible career. The AQuA course gave her such a boost that she decided not to retire after all. She chose to put her great slab of experience into helping the next generation. How can you possibly put a value on that? You can analyse a drip but not its ripples.

There was a lovely moment, when the youngest participant was asked to hold up a single word to show how she was feeling. She chose the word BOLD but that’s not what moved me…

Her mature colleague quietly whispered that this gave her hope, that the future, that was in safe hands. There was a sense of peace in her voice that I found reassuring and if I wasn’t so professional, I’d have cried.

Even a ‘health amateur’ like me can see tangible improvement. The symptoms are proud faces, big brains and healthy hearts. A room full of leaders, there was not one single ego or as I like to call it, the distilled essence of leadership.

At the start of our journey, we were islands. Together, we built bridges and if we can do that once, we can do it a thousand times, to help save, heal and improve patients’ lives. A small thing and a big thing. The future, but good.

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