The patient information forum is a multi-sectorial network with over 500 members that share a common aim; working to improve the way we communicate with patients and with the public about healthcare.

How do you keep up to date with what's happening in your sphere of health interest? Who do you turn to with a work-related query that you'd like to pose to people outside your organisation? Have you a sounding-board you can bounce ideas off?

If you're unsure of the answers to any of the above then maybe you need to establish or join a network. But before you do it's best to check if one already exists, and an excellent starting point is the NHS Networks website.

One featured network, which focuses on the increasingly important need to inform and communicate more clearly with patients, is the Patient Information Forum www.pifonline.org.uk

The forum.itself is not a patient organisation, nor is it a publisher of patient information. It is a truly multi-sectorial network with over 500 members that share a common aim; working to improve the way we communicate with patients and with the public about healthcare, a.must in the good management handbook.

The sectors that forum members come from include:

  • NHS - trusts, NHS Direct, NHS24, Healthcare Commission, NICE, Picker, UK National Screening Committee (45 per cent).
  • Commercial - BUPA, Microsoft, Lloydspharmacy, Pfizer (20 per cent).
  • Patient groups - Alzheimer's Society, Diabetes UK, Macmillan, MIND, Which?, Scottish Consumer Council (20 per cent).
  • Academic - Cambridge University, London School of Economics and Political Science (10 per cent).
  • Professional - royal colleges, General Medical Council, and others, such as the BBC (5 per cent).

The Patient Information Forum.shares good practice in a range of ways, many of which are common to most networks:

  • Bulletin: a weekly current awareness e-mail tailored to address specific themes around patient information, and designed to be read at a glance. Readers can then click on items of interest.
  • Query: this service allows members to ask forum colleagues for advice and insights into various projects. Recent posts include requests for advice on how to involve people with lung cancer in patient panels/policy making work, and contributions to a rapid literature review on how people look for health information.
  • Website: this contains a range of knowledge on information-related themes (see www.pifonline.org.uk/?o=1082).
  • Conferences: The forum.holds a large annual conference every February and also focuses on themes of current interest. For example the forum.ran the UK's first information prescriptions conference last November to help share expertise and stimulate discussion around this new policy direction..
  • Workshops: in addition to the traditional speaker/ question-and-answer sessions, the forum.runs 'sounding-board' events. Around five forum members from each of the NHS, commercial, and voluntary sectors are selected and they provide mechanisms for feedback on proposed pieces of work in a workshop setting. This method has been.used successfully with the Department of Health and Skills for Health.

However, a word of warning: networks are only as good as the effort expended to maintain them. With NHS staff currently pushed to their maximum, and core funding increasingly hard to come by, we may soon see the demise of voluntary networks. That would be a shame, not so much for the networks themselves, but for the people they serve.

For more information visit www.networks.nhs.uk

Mark Duman is chair of the Patient Information Forum.