Reshaping the relationship between the public and the NHS

Briefing examining the importance of engaging and communicating with the public, showcasing case studies from each NHS organisation in Wales.

16 March 2022

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To deliver on the long-term vision for health and care, developing the relationship between public services and citizens must be a priority for the Welsh Government, where public engagement and communication will play a crucial role. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has strengthened the relationship between the NHS and the public and we have seen a remarkable level of public understanding and support, from sewing face masks and shopping for our shielding neighbours, to a genuine sense of gratitude for the sacrifices health and care staff make on the frontline. 

However, public expectations have shifted as the pandemic has progressed and there is now a growing disconnect between what is expected and what the service is able to deliver. This could undermine the positive developments we have seen during the pandemic, with urgent and meaningful dialogue required to realign expectations. It is crucial the public continue to feel personally invested in our service to help ensure its long-term sustainability. This will only be possible with an effective engagement and communication strategy across all sectors. Through clear and targeted communication and the use of digital technology, we can help the public understand that recovery from COVID-19 will be slow, as well as provide them with information to access services in different ways and support them in feeling empowered in their health choices. 

The ways in which the NHS, local government and the voluntary sector work together have also evolved during the pandemic, including through consistent communication over a period of time across all public sector bodies.  

The transformation of services across the health and care system, in addition to the networks within the Local Resilience Forums, have enabled the public sector to reach out to communities by providing consistent information and ensuring feedback is sought and addressed.  

More than ever, there is a clear sense of ‘common purpose’ as the NHS and its partners work towards delivering the widely supported ambitions within A Healthier Wales, while managing the ongoing demands of coronavirus. We now have an opportunity to develop holistic messaging across the public sector - and wider partners in the third and private sectors - around population health and the need for service change. 

An open and honest conversation is also needed with the public about what the NHS can be expected to provide in the future, and the newly established Citizens Voice Body will play an important role in this. Difficult decisions will have to be made between the demands of elective recovery, access to primary care, mental health and the generational task of reducing health inequalities. That is why NHS leaders require the Welsh Government and all politicians to be clear with the public about the scale of the recovery challenge. It is also important to balance the political voice with the clinical voice: we know that clinicians and other health care professionals have credibility with the public. We need clear, consistent, targeted communications, starting with the government, filtered down through all public sector bodies to local organisations and staff on the ground, that will support and help the public to understand that there is a long road ahead for NHS recovery.  

Together, we can engage the public in a conversation which aims to support people to look after their own health for the benefit of all. A cross-sector effort is required across health, housing, environmental, transport, economic, education and food policy to contribute to the wider ambition of healthier families living happier lives.