The flu fighter campaign, run by NHS Employers, is aiming to increase the uptake of flu jabs among NHS staff

As winter approaches and with it the flu season, it’s a good time to reflect on why flu vaccinations are important for NHS staff.

For a start, flu kills. While the flu season was relatively mild last year, figures from the Health Protection Agency show that in England in 2010-11 the virus killed 602 people, 70 per cent of whom were 15-64 years old. Also that year, nearly 9,000 patients were admitted to hospital with influenza, of which 2,000 were admitted to intensive care.

In 2010-11 flu killed 602 people in England, 70 per cent of whom were 15-64 years old

NHS Employers was selected by the Social Partnership Forum of employers, unions and government to run the flu fighter campaign, which is funded by strategic health authorities. It aims to increase uptake of flu vaccinations of frontline staff, who are not obliged to receive it but who are encouraged to have it to protect themselves, their families and their patients.

Department of Health figures show that last year the campaign encouraged an additional 100,000 additional NHS staff to be vaccinated. But there is still some way to go - under half of frontline NHS staff currently receive a flu jab.

This year’s campaign posters show real NHS staff from around the country, including doctors from Salford Royal Foundation Trust and physiotherapists from Sheffield Children’s Foundation Trust.

Volunteer forces mobilised

The campaign has tailored resources for doctors, nurses and midwives and allied health professionals; the Department of Health has written to these staff groups in official letters, highlighting the importance of flu vaccination to protect staff, their families and their patients against flu this winter.

Volunteer vaccination teams are being encouraged and set up by occupational health departments across the country, ambulance staff can train to give vaccinations to colleagues across multiple sites, which will increase access in the field, and midwives will be asked to have the jab and encourage expectant mothers to be vaccinated.

Encouraging pregnant staff to get vaccinated is a focus of Birmingham Children’s Hospital Foundation Trust’s flu campaign this year. Chief executive Sarah Jane Marsh, who is currently pregnant, had her photo taken getting her flu jab, to help spread the message and lead from the top.

“We recognised last year that was a big issue,” says the trust’s chief nursing officer Michelle McLoughlin. “It is important regardless of what stage of the pregnancy that expectant mums get their flu jab.”

Last year the hospital vaccinated 98 per cent of staff and this year the target is all of them. Its success comes down to a number of things, including making flu vaccination just a normal part of supporting staff in health and wellbeing. The campaign begins early and carries on consistently throughout the flu season. Messages about why it’s important are communicated to staff, and there is an effort to make it fun.

Make it easy for staff

Ms McLoughlin offered to inject consultants at a medical staff committee meeting, which made it easy for them. “They all had a lollipop at the end of it and a sticker to say how brave they were,” she says. “Those kinds of messages get round everyone, so you then get the momentum.”

Birmingham Children’s Hospital has 32 flu champions recruited from its own nursing staff. They carry out the immunisations at convenient locations and times for staff – on their way to the canteen for lunch, in the conservatory having coffee, during a handover period, and so on.

All staff from doctors to cleaners to administrators are considered frontline staff and are encouraged to get vaccinated. “These nurses immunise anybody and everybody that includes children who are inpatients, their parents, brothers and sisters” says Ms McLoughlin.

She adds: “At our hospital the children are normally really sick, a number of them with life threatening conditions, so it is even more important that we make sure they don’t get the flu. And this is a very, very easy way of making sure that they don’t.”

NHS Employers director Dean Royles says there’s an increasing recognition that it’s important for staff to protect themselves from being infected and avoid spreading the virus to their own families and the vulnerable patients they care for. He sees a culture change occurring in which getting the flu jab is a natural thing people do, like washing their hands, and is seen as good practice.

Why immunisation matters

NHS staff are susceptible to flu, and vaccination can help to lower sickness absence rates, which generally rise in the winter, this enables better care to be provided to patients.

Mr Royles adds: “We never know how far away we are from a more serious flu outbreak. Having our staff protected and able to help in the event of a major flu outbreak is really important.”

NHS Employers sends letters to all medical directors, chief nursing officers and HR directors, encouraging them to plan for the flu season and increase staff uptake of the flu jab. In addition to the more traditional campaign methods, social media has become an increasingly important channel for flu fighter. Staff are sharing the successes at their local organisations on Facebook and Twitter, in a way that was unavailable in previous years.

“It generates some energy and excitement around [the campaign] because people are proud of the work that they’re doing on it and pleased to share it,” says Mr Royles. “We can change behaviours through some of the traditional methods but [with social media] we really get a culture change that engages staff in that conversation.”

“I can say to people it didn’t hurt and I didn’t have any side effects - I went off to play football afterwards and I feel fine”

As chief executive of Leeds Community Healthcare Trust, Rob Webster had a flu jab because it sets the right example and he can give feedback. He says: “I can say to people it didn’t hurt and I didn’t have any side effects - I went off to play football afterwards and I feel fine.”

On a personal level, he also got vaccinated because he wants to be in work – the trust has an ongoing foundation application – plus he wants to stay healthy and not put his kids at risk.

The trust’s flu campaign featured on day four of a safety awareness week. “We had a whole day of going round the services and providing flu vaccinations through our flu champions,” he says.

Good business sense

Throughout the day, he and other board members were vaccinated and photographed. In the first week of the campaign, about 350 staff were vaccinated, followed by 300-400 in week two. That equates to about one quarter of the trust’s 3,000 staff.

Their target is 70 per cent, which is not straightforward given that the workforce is spread over 120 different sites. “What we’ve offered people this year is that we will come to them,” says Mr Webster. “We’ll try and create as many opportunities for people to have flu vaccinations as possible.”

Staff flu vaccinations make good business sense for NHS organisations, which exist to deliver the best possible care. That means delivering quality services, which encompasses safety, patient experience and effective outcomes. Mr Webster says: “If you’ve got a quality based organisation then flu vaccination is critical to being safe.”

He adds: “At the heart of it all for me is, why should your colleagues have to work harder this winter just because you didn’t have your flu jab and you got the flu. And, if you’re working with vulnerable people, why should you put them at risk just because you haven’t had your flu jab.”

Department of Health director of nursing Viv Bennett concludes: “Flu can be a serious illness for some, particularly patients who are already at risk, so I’d urge all frontline staff to get vaccinated and encourage colleagues to do so.”