“The NHSX communications team are grateful for the help from AHSN communications colleagues. Our in-house team has been hugely stretched, and the support of experienced AHSN comms professionals has been lifesaving.

“The Health at Home work is a good example. We stood up at speed, with AHSN help, a campaign and microsite to help the public access digital NHS services during the pandemic.”

Matthew Gould, CEO of NHSX

Mobilising communications support for NHSX

Challenge / problem identified

Effective communication has been a critical factor in the NHS response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This focuses on engaging professional teams – cascading messaging and sharing learning to support safer services – and with the public around accessing support and enabling self-care.

However, during the pandemic NHS regional and national communications teams have been stretched, juggling hugely increasing workloads and the imperative to focus on managing the day-to-day crisis response.

Actions taken

As collaborative organisations, AHSNs are founded on their ability to proactively engage individuals and organisations across sectors and have invested in strong communications and built significant expertise in developing engaged cross-sector networks that enable targeted cascading to multiple audiences.

When COVID-19 hit, the AHSNs offered support to both regional and national NHS partners: our assistance and expertise has had an absolutely transformation impact.

Within a week of lock-down, The AHSN Network had mobilised its communications support for regional and national NHS partners.

A major focus was to link with NHSX to assist the national work around opportunities for technology to support the COVID-19 response.

Based on identified NHSX support needs, the Network undertook a rapid skills audit and within days identified six communications professionals from across the AHSNs who were seconded either full or part-time for up to eight weeks covering:

  • Media relations expertise
  • Social media management
  • Communications planning to support promotion of campaigns
  • Coordinated cascading of major announcements and campaigns, including TechForce19 and Health at Home.

NHSX support is just one example of how AHSNs leveraged the strength of their communications expertise. Others include:

  • Using our regional healthcare networks to cascade clinical best practice, including rapid insights for Intensive Care Units
  • Hosting national and regional webinars for clinicians and health professionals
  • Bespoke support for regional NHS teams such as media relations, organising virtual meetings and setting up online forums to share learning
  • Dedicated support for other national agencies facing communications challenges, for example the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) whose communications teams was temporarily furloughed.

Impacts / outcomes

Communications and engagement impact and outcomes are difficult to quantify. However, our impacts include:

  • Dedicated support – around 600 hours of time has been devoted to our support for NHSX communications and engagement
  • Speed of response – we reacted immediately to regional and national partners’ support needs with examples of dedicated help being put in place within hours of lock-down
  • Reach of our networks – for example our regional and national webinars have been attended by over 50,000 people since April.

Lessons learned

  1. Investing in robust communications resource, including expertise in key areas: content creation, digital, engagement and events
  2. Creating engaged networks of professionals across health sectors enables rapid and effective cascading during emergency situations – for example sharing ‘lessons learned’ with clinical teams
  3. Leveraging potential for technology – particularly online meeting platforms  and social media messaging – to support effective and rapid engagement with professionals and the public
  4. Importance of investing in patient involvement – creating engaged networks of patient leaders who can support cascading of key information during a crisis.

Future plans / next steps

As engaging networks, the AHSNs are continuing to support effective regional and national communications with the NHS, NHSX, NHS regional teams, STPs / ICSs and other partners.

As we move through the pandemic response phases and into recovery and restoration, this includes a leading role in major ‘reset’ communications campaigns with partners, including NHS Confederation, the Health Foundation, King’s Fund and the NHS (around the Beneficial Changes Network).