The ability for local people to influence healthcare services in their region should be an important focus for commissioning consortia - and patient panels provide a perfect opportunity.

One of the current challenges facing primary care trusts is helping establish patient-led panels that can work alongside commissioning consortia.

NHS Redbridge (NHSR) was one of the first trusts to set-up community panels which support each of the borough’s five GP commissioning boards.

The longest serving is Loxford Community Panel (LCP), established in 2008 to provide public input into the creation of London’s first purpose-built polyclinic offering more than 30 services under one roof.

The panel was established in April 2008 by NHSR working in partnership with colleagues from our local council for voluntary services. The aim was to provide local residents with a genuine opportunity to influence healthcare services in their borough.

The development of the polyclinic provided the opportunity to involve local residents from the very early planning stages.

Amy Burgess, community engagement and equalities officer at NHS Redbridge, was involved in establishing the panel and in doing so, worked to the following objectives:

  1. Set up a patient panel that represents the local population and is aligned to the polysystem development
  2. Ensure this panel has the correct governance structure in place and a regular meeting structure that actively addresses the current issues
  3. Engage the panel at the very start  of any discussions around service design - this is crucial
  4. Ensure the panel are informed directly of issues and developments from the PCT/commissioner and are able to openly discuss solutions with them
  5. Think how how best to use the panels local knowledge and experience to ensure you are truly delivering services for local people

Ms Burgess feels Redbridge residents have a real interest in their healthcare and explains how it has been rewarding to spend time with the community panel members and develop a productive relationship with them.

“This isn’t simply a tick box exercise for the PCT, but a real opportunity to make a difference and ensure our local residents are truly engaged in decisions about their healthcare services,” she says. “The panel is a partnership between the PCT and the members. The panel is community-owned and that sense of ownership is very important for the patients and the wider community”

The panel members

The panel represents a range of diverse backgrounds and work experience including nurses, a local councillor, civil servants, teachers, caterers and clinicians as well as a mix of religious beliefs and languages.

The panel consists of 15 core members although as many as 25 people have been involved at different stages. The clinical director and the chief officer for Loxford Polysystem also attend each meeting to provide direct continuity between the PCT and the panel members.

Community panel meetings

The meetings are held every four to six weeks at the polyclinic. The times alternate between afternoon and evening meetings, so that people who work or have other responsibilities during the day also have the opportunity to be involved.

The topics for discussion are fed directly from either NHSR such as emerging issues from patient surveys or issues raised directly by panel members. Project leads for relevant work streams are invited to attend the meetings to discuss how the panel can influence the project.

LCP member Peter Midlane said: “The atmosphere at the meetings is relaxed; there is always a discussion about the topic and then we agree the way forward.”

Achievements of the panel

LCP directly contributed to the development of the polyclinic café and pharmacy. They were also involved in meetings with PCT staff and external consultants about improving transport links and worked on stakeholder mapping about the look and feel of the building, where they discussed the designs for internal signage and, helped select and locally source the artwork displayed throughout the building.

Their influence resulted in a bright and welcoming building for patients and the public, rather than the ‘clinical’ design we often associate with healthcare facilities.

Although their original remit only included the development of the polyclinic, the panel now focuses on the surrounding polysystem and the wider local engagement issues.

The panel members assisted the PCT to select which community and voluntary groups would be offered space to run their sessions from inside the polyclinic. They helped ensure a fair selection process was in place and were able to use their knowledge and experience, as local residents, to help choose a range of groups most appropriate to the needs of local people.

Peter Midlane can also see the benefits that this model has brought to the GPs. “They are now more aware of the value to be gained from working closely with their local community. It can assist them with planning which services should be available and demonstrates how services provided by community and voluntary groups can work successfully alongside NHS services.”

Moving forward

The community engagement model has been so successful it has been replicated across the borough.

In January 2010, four additional community panels were set up to work in partnership with the four other polysystems in the borough, and are located in the Redbridge areas of Cranbrook, Fairlop, Seven Kings and Wanstead.

This has resulted in a notable 100 people being actively engaged, on a regular basis, through the community panel model. All community panels have the opportunity to work with NHS managers and local GPs to influence decisions regarding their local healthcare services. 

Future challenges

The government’s proposed changes for the NHS have placed even greater emphasis on GPs working with local residents to plan and deliver local healthcare services.

By developing the five community panels, NHS Redbridge believes the emerging commissioning consortia will have a valuable community based resource which they should continue working with.

Within Redbridge we do not consider this to be a major change to what has already being done over the past two years. Community panels will want to maintain their momentum and, hopefully, increase the number of their members.

We anticipate the panel members will want to continue their momentum and will see the opportunity to work even more closely with their GPs as a positive step. Local residents will naturally want to ensure their local healthcare services are appropriate and have the resources to meet the needs of the populations they serve.

Evaluation of patient and public engagement

The primary and community care team at Commissioning Support for London are currently conducting an independent evaluation of the polysystem model and are working with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Picker Institute to ensure further lessons can be shared across London in regards to patient and public engagement.

For more information on the panel or the polysystems evaluation, email polyclinics@csl.nhs.uk.

For more information about community panels in Redbridge, email amy.burgess@redbridge.nhs.uk