The best health organisations in the world put patients at the heart of what they do. This is why the Releasing Time to Care programme is so important.

The programme enables staff to give more time to caring for patients and service users - which, after all, is at the heart of good healthcare. For many patients and their families, caring can be as simple as demystifying what is going to happen, and for others it is about empathising.

We should remember that when someone comes into our care, they are often frightened. They are in unfamiliar surroundings and may feel vulnerable and disempowered. Showing concern and taking time to consider each patient's needs can transform their care and their view of the NHS.

Spending more time with patients will result in improved clinical outcomes, greater patient satisfaction, and a positive change for our much admired workforce. To provide an example, the Gayton ward at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King's Lynn is a model of the future. Through the Releasing Time to Care programme, the team there has increased the time it spends on direct care by over 10 per cent, increased the recording of clinical observations by 100 per cent, and seen the workforce benefits of having a shared vision for the ward.

Personal touch

A good patient experience is often defined by the amount of one-to-one time spent with frontline nursing staff. The countless times, every day, that staff in the NHS take time to talk and listen to their patients makes a huge difference, and creating time to do more of this is cost and care effective.

With this in mind, I believe patient satisfaction will become the most important driver for the NHS in 2009 and beyond.

We should not confuse patient outcomes with patient experience. High-quality patient outcomes are a given - that is what we do, and we do it well. The patient experience is about softer issues: being encouraged to take a few steps after surgery is clinically beneficial, but it is how we do this and how we empathise with our patient as we do it that determine the experience that will be taken away by the patient.

Now that we are moving away from the financial difficulties of the past few years - which have been particularly acute in my region - I sense a renewed confidence in the healthcare system. This confidence is delivering improvements in care and a clearer perspective on what is important. This can be seen very clearly in the landmark NHS constitution, and also in Lord Darzi's next stage review.

Local focus

In his report, Lord Darzi advocates an ambitious vision of a patient-centred, clinician-led, locally driven NHS. All trusts have a vital role to play in driving up quality to deliver this vision. This is supported in the East of England by our 10-year strategy, Improving Lives; Saving Lives. In this strategy, we make 11 pledges to our people. The first pledge is to deliver year on year improvements in patient experience.

The Releasing Time to Care programme is a unique opportunity for everyone working in the NHS to improve the effectiveness, safety and reliability of the services we provide.

I would argue that to make this happen locally, we need to engage the non-executive community as leaders. They will be able to champion the programme through their boards, and will bring a fresh dynamism. I have seen this at close hand during the present NHS constitution consultation, and also at an event on patient satisfaction that I recently hosted for chairs and chief executives.

Over to you - let's use this opportunity to make a real difference.