Mid-Mersey A&E Delivery Board, Widnes Vikings, Renova Developments, and Cheshire and Merseyside Health and Care Partnership won the 2018 HSJ Award for primary care innovation for their awareness campaign Beat the Scrum. Claire Read reports

John Hughes liked to think he was pretty knowledgable about the health system. After all, he’d spent almost a decade in the communications department at a major social care organisation, working with the NHS on a day-to-day basis.

But during a conversation with a colleague at Halton Clinical Commissioning Group, he realised there was one important area of which he had been partly ignorant: when it was and wasn’t necessary to attend accident and emergency

“A commissioner was telling me for most things that people were experiencing you could go to this urgent care centre in Widnes,” recalls Mr Hughes.

“When he was describing to me the things people shouldn’t go to A&E for, they were almost exactly the things I thought people should. So he was saying things like: ‘If people break a bone, they go to A&E but they should go to the urgent care centre.’ Now to me breaking a bone was something that had sounded like more of an accident and emergency.

“For me, someone who’s worked in the care sector for a long time and is relatively well informed, to not necessarily know the function of A&E was something that was surprising.”

An A&E scrum helps clear misconceptions

Mr Hughes began to wonder if there were new methods that could be used to better spread messages about appropriate usage of services. His ideas crystallised during a two-week period on leave before starting a new job as director of communications and digital at Widnes Vikings, the local rugby league club.

“Essentially I started day dreaming and had this concept of rugby players doing a big scrum in a hospital and people struggling to get past it, and then from that obviously some information given [about the best use of NHS services].”

He already knew the possible impact of engaging Widnes Vikings, having developed a partnership with the squad in his care provider role.

“Social care is such a tough environment; an invisible sector. But once you put the players against something, local people hear about it, they’re interested. Because we used the rugby players, this care provider that had been sort of anonymous locally became one that everyone knew about.”

And so in his fortnight between roles, Mr Hughes drafted a series of video scripts about how to avoid being trapped in an A&E scrum. He put them to the local CCG and was greeted with considerable enthusiasm.

Some seed funding was put up by Renova Developments, a healthcare facilities and estates provider in the region, and soon the stars of Widnes Vikings were also stars of 20 videos on when to use which NHS services.

Backed by social media advertising, the result was 14 times the engagement of traditional NHS marketing in Halton and a correlating 7.8 per cent reduction in local A&E usage.

Social care is such a tough environment; an invisible sector. But once you put the players against something, local people hear about it, they’re interested

“From there we were approached about how we could scale it up and make it more significant,” Mr Hughes explains. “So we created a brand called Beat the Scrum that was supported by a coalition of regional NHS brands.” 

Four professionally filmed campaigns were arranged, this time involving current and retired players in two neighbouring rugby teams – Warrington Wolves and St Helens – as well as those from Widnes. The work was backed by Mid-Mersey A&E Delivery Board.

A resulting winter health campaign generated 300,000 views alone and usage of urgent care services in Halton rose by 25 per cent compared to the previous year.

It was statistics like those which impressed our 2018 HSJ Awards judges, leading them to name Beat the Scrum as the winner in the primary care innovation category. Little could they have known, though, that the hope was always to present the project for their consideration.

“Right at the very beginning of coming up with this mad concept, I remember sitting with people and them saying: ‘Oh, if this works we’ve got to enter it for the HSJ Awards!’ It was really, really important for those NHS partners: that if it’s the success we hope and think it will be, let’s make sure it’s recognised. I think that shows the prestige of HSJ, and the way it can put things on the map.”

Partnering with local institutions

Hardly surprising to learn that Mr Hughes has been repeatedly asked if it might be possible to replicate the Beat the Scrum approach with other sports teams. And while he has now developed a similar campaign with Queens Park Rangers football club, he is at pains to say the lesson of these projects is not that every NHS service should partner up with a sports club.

He argues the Vikings were exactly the right NHS partner for the area. “Widnes is known for its rugby. Aside from Paul Simon writing Homeward Bound because he wanted to leave the place, the only thing we’ve got here is the rugby team,” he says with an affectionate chuckle. “It is really important to the local community.”

A resulting winter health campaign generated 300,000 views alone and usage of urgent care services in Halton rose by 25 per cent compared to the previous year

Nor is the local community’s importance to the Vikings in doubt. “It’s a small club with limited money, so most of its players came through its youth system and have been with the club about the age of 12.”

But clearly not every place has a sports team that has that two way connection to the community. There are likely to be other institutions that do, though. “It might be the local library, or the local theatre, or any number of groups,” says Mr Hughes.

The key lesson he sees from the Beat the Scrum project is the NHS “working with groups that people care about” to better spread important messages.

“There are different ways of telling stories, and of using the people at your fingertips,” he concludes.

For more information on Cheshire and Merseyside’s winning entry visit HSJ Solutions

The 2019 HSJ Awards are now open for entries. For more information on the Primary Care Innovation Category visit https://awards.hsj.co.uk/categories