Three large NHS organisations in Kent recognised its summer county show was an ideal venue for getting people familiar with their NHS, reports Alison Moore

Three Kent NHS organisations got together to run a marquee at the county’s main summer event - and made contact with 45,000 people.

400 people signed up as members for the health and social care partnership trust

50 people signed up as foundation trust members

More than half the 80,000 visitors to the three day Kent County Show last year passed through the health tent, which was staffed by 400 volunteers from East Kent Hospitals University Foundation Trust, NHS Eastern and Coastal KentCommunity Services, and Kent and Medway NHS and Social Care Partnership Trust.

As well as giving health information and some monitoring tests, the organisations were able to recruit foundation trust members, interest people in working for the NHS and inform them about hospital charities - all for an engagement cost of 55p per visitor.

What do NHS organisations need to consider if they want to run something similar?

Plan early The hospital trust’s director of communications James Murray visited the previous year’s show and began to think then about how a large health display involving several organisations could work.

Although the county show is mainly about celebrating Kent’s agricultural heritage, it hosts other charitable and commercial organisations. Mr Murray felt most visitors wanted to “make a day” of it by wandering round all these additional displays and would be interested in a health marquee.

Get high level support Both the chief executive and chair of the hospital trust were enthused by the idea and attended the event. The chair was so impressed he presented a special award to the county show team at the trust’s annual awards celebration.

Get other NHS organisations involved The original idea may have come from the hospital trust, but inviting other organisations to join allowed a wider range of stalls to attract visitors. Staff also enjoyed the opportunity to meet colleagues from other organisations. Isobel Woodruffe, assistant director of communications and engagement at NHS Eastern and Coastal Kent Community Services, says the use of the NHS logo - rather than individual organisations’ logos - was helpful in getting recognition and encouraging people through the door.

Work out what your organisation can offer Mr Murray looked at what each hospital department could contribute, especially in terms of portable equipment which would interest visitors - everything from prosthetic ears and birthing pools to saddles which help disabled children ride. Then he asked whether they would be happy to be involved and if they could do this without affecting the delivery of services at the trust’s hospitals. This meant, for example, that clinics would be kept running even if some staff were at the show.

Get volunteers - not conscripts - and allow the public easy access to healthcare professionals. All the volunteers from the hospital trust were given a family ticket for the show so they and their families could enjoy the other attractions after they had finished their stint on duty. The event proved to be a great morale booster: there was a very positive reaction from staff, who enjoyed contact with the public and the opportunity to offer healthcare advice, unencumbered by the normal bureaucracy, targets and time pressure.

Get the public involved in a number of ways - and make it fun. The marquee had around 50 separate stalls and offered visitors opportunities for health monitoring, such as blood pressure, body mass index and vascular checks, health information, and displays from different departments, including community based services such as physiotherapy and podiatry.

But some of the most popular stalls offered hands-on experiences such as looking at the inside of a visitor’s ear on a computer monitor, trying on “empathy belts” which replicate the extra weight and bulk of pregnancy, Reiki massages from cancer services staff, and real plastercasts for children.

There were also stalls where people could sign up as foundation trust members - the hospital trust, which only serves East Kent, got 50 members and the Kent-wide mental health trust got nearly 400, including a large number of under-16s, who are often difficult to reach.

Kent and Medway member and governance manager Martine Nichols says the partnership trust was able to do work dispelling myths about mental health and educating people about how common mental health problems are. And 2,000 people enquired about working in the NHS.

Use it to get across key messages A UV light box was used to show how washing hands well can remove bugs and assist infection control: this showed visitors both that the NHS is concerned about infection control and that they, as potential patients or visitors to hospital, had a part to play in this.

Anthea Potter, infection control sister at the hospital trust, says: “The show helped to give infection control a better profile with the public.”

Be aware of ethical issues Although staff carried out monitoring tests, they were careful not to diagnose people on the spot in what was quite a public arena; anyone with, for example, a high blood pressure reading was advised to see their GP and get it rechecked. In some cases, staff could offer reassurance, as with people being within the normal BMI ranges. However, one visitor was despatched to hospital in an ambulance that was there as part of the display, because he showed symptoms of a stroke.

Think big The health marquee attracted more visitors than anyone anticipated and did get crowded at points. The vascular team had so many requests for monitoring checks they had to “commandeer” an ambulance to use as a mobile blood pressure station. This year, there are plans for a bigger marquee and more NHS organisations to be involved.