NHS Oxfordshire has an ambitious vision for improving the health of its county.

Key to delivering this is the effective engagement of the public and partner organisations to promote well being, support health management, provide a choice of high quality value-for-money health services, and deliver a transformation in local health services by 2012.

In 2009 the trust decided it required a more efficient, robust and accountable solution for engaging and consulting with the public and other stakeholders about its services.

Under its commitment to world class commissioning, NHS Oxfordshire has a duty to involve and consult stakeholders when new services are proposed or significant changes are made to existing services. These consultations include engagement and involvement activities with a wide range of stakeholders across Oxfordshire—including the public, patients, charities and other relevant groups—to ensure services reflect the needs and wishes of the diverse community served by the trust.

Although the trust had been very active in engaging with the public by going out into the local community to communicate important health messages through road shows, public meetings and leaflets, the back-end management of consultations had become a lengthy, inefficient process.

Sara Price, NHS Oxfordshire’s communications and engagement coordinator explained: “Without a common consultation management framework in place, older contact information and past project records were recorded in multiple formats and in a variety of locations. Each new consultation required a great deal of manual searching, duplicate research and time-consuming administration. We needed to use that valuable time more efficiently for targeted consultations focused on quality engagement.”

Towards the end of 2009, NHS Oxfordshire’s communications and engagement team deployed INOVEM Inclusionware to enable staff to consult online with greater efficiency, transparency, accuracy and accountability.

The system is designed to help organisations such as NHS Oxfordshire manage complex consultation projects while streamlining their administration of large volumes of responses.

NHS Oxfordshire integrated the system into its public facing website. A “have your say” tab from the homepage links directly to comprehensive engagement tools including “talking health”, the trust’s public involvement service, and “you said, we did”, an area that allows the public to discover how their comments and feedback in consultations helped tailor services.

“On line consultation is allowing us to reach a new and wider audience to enhance our offline activities,” said Ms Price. “It enables us to keep thorough, well maintained records of our engagement activities—what is being said and by whom. Importantly it allows us to build relationships with stakeholders who might find it uncomfortable or impractical to contribute in face-to-face meetings.

“We’re using it for public consultations using structured documents, but we’re also using other tools such as quick polls to rapidly gauge public opinion on trends.”

The current economic climate has made it unlikely that funding for the NHS will increase at all over the next few years. Efficiency savings cannot be achieved without the full support of the public and staff, so an essential part of this process will include examining how easily and cost-effectively the trust can include staff and public in critical decisions about the future of health and social care services.

The system coordinates all the PCT’s consultation activities while avoiding duplication and providing a scalable framework for best practice and consistency. Over time, a self-maintaining stakeholder database is created that can be used to profile and target individuals and organisations for particular types or topics of consultation.

“We’ve had no problems at all with the public adapting to online consultation—for them it’s just a seamless continuation of clicking through our website. That gives us the confidence to think of even more creative methods of engagement, enabling further public involvement”

The duty to report

New legislation that came into force in April 2010 requires all PCTs and SHAs that commission services to explain how they have acted upon feedback from patients and the public. This duty to report is a legal obligation for all primary care trusts.

NHS Oxfordshire’s “you said, we did”, an area of the website that provides information on exactly how public views were used to shape decisions made by the trust in improving healthcare services across Oxfordshire and what was done or changed as a result of feedback given.

“We now have hard evidence. A robust system for recording and sharing not just what people said, but on what subjects and by which methods they’d like to be consulted in the future. Previously, we may have been over-consulting with some people and not reaching others. Now we’re building richer relationships,” said Ms Price.

Local residents visiting NHS Oxfordshire online are encouraged under the banner “come and talk health” to get involved with a constantly refreshed range of consultations, simply by clicking on a project that engages them. Technology is actively complementing face-to-face engagement and providing greater choice and flexibility for citizens.

“Of course public meetings, discussion groups and user forums will continue to be an essential part of public engagement, but increasingly we’re finding we can encourage a level of comment and feedback on policy through structured documents, for example, that we simply couldn’t achieve in any other way,” said Ms Price.