Published: 16/06/2005, Volume II5, No. 5960 Page 7

The health secretary is preparing to don scrubs and go behind the scenes in an average hospital as part of efforts to 'listen and learn' from frontline staff.

Patricia Hewitt said she had already tried to make her visits to healthcare facilities less staged than is the convention, by giving 'as little notice as is compatible with politeness and just having somebody there to greet me and show me round'.

She said she was trying to avoid the kind of visits which were organised 'with military precision a long time in advance, where the corridor gets a lick of paint if it needs it and everyone is looking spick and span'.

She added: 'The next thing I want to do - if somebody will let me - is just put on a set of scrubs and shadow somebody and really melt into the background.' Talking to staff informally - without managers present - was particularly important, she added.

Ms Hewitt repeatedly emphasised the importance of engaging and listening to staff.

She said that her experience as the longest-serving secretary for trade and industry since the 1950s had shown her some of the secrets of successful organisations.

'One of the key ingredients is leaders and managers who spend a lot of time listening to the front line - not as a one-off project with a start date and an end date but as. . . part of how you work day in, day out.' Ms Hewitt has also set up a dedicated e-mail account so that NHS and social care staff can get in touch with her.

Three weeks ago, she impressed the DoH's customer service centre with her typing skills when she decided to pick out a handful for personal attention.

'I sat with them for an hour or so and typed my own replies - I happen to be a very fast typist - and I adore e-mails, and texts. I think they were a bit amazed actually, by the typing. I just zipped away and answered several very interesting e-mails.' While stressing that staff could not usually expect such a personal level of service, Ms Hewitt said the exercise had given her an insight into some of the typical and unusual issues facing the NHS.

And find out what she says next

For coverage of the health secretary's speech to the NHS Confederation's annual conference tomorrow - and rolling news from conference open to close - log on to HSJ's dedicated microsite.

It will have highlights from all the major speeches, policy panel debates and the parallel strand sessions. You can meet HSJ's editorial team and visit its stand, H10, at the Birmingham ICC, at 3pm on Wednesday, 15 June and 3.30pm on 16 June. Keep up to date at:

www. hsj. co. uk/ nhsconfed2005