Yes COVID-19 has accelerated innovation, but patients must now be heard in its adoption

Rachel Power, Chief Executive, Patients Association

In a guest blog for MHP, Rachel Power argues that patients must be the agents of change as we design post-pandemic health and social care

COVID-19 has brought about long-term changes to perhaps every aspect of healthcare. On the one hand, the pandemic has seen rapid discharges from hospital and delays/cancellations to treatment on an unprecedented scale. Research published this week in The Lancet Oncology journal estimates such 3,500 people in England may die within the next five years of one of the four main cancers as a result of delays in being diagnosed because of COVID-19. This all happened without any form of patient consultation. While the result of this is deeply concerning, due to the huge challenges of the situation, it could be argued that this was necessary.

At the same time, while an incredibly challenging period for those across the UK – and all over the globe – COVID-19 has prompted a swift uptake of innovative approaches to healthcare which can make a real difference to patients’ lives. From rapid adoption of remote consultations, to the restructuring of supply chains for medicines, diagnostics and equipment, these changes could potentially endure for a long time.

But are patients involved in the discussions around the future of these developments, and the impact they will have on their care? As an example – from speaking to patients, we know that not everyone prefers – or has access to – virtual consultations. Research from 2018 found them to be safe, effective and convenient for patients who are preselected as ‘suitable’, but these – at the time – represented a small fraction of clinic workloads. So there is a need to ensure face-to-face consultations can still take place, and it is critical to involve patients in the roll out and scale up of such digital technologies so they work for as many as possible.

The NHS Long-Term Plan saw a variable picture when it came to the full engagement of patients at every stage of major changes to services. The risk that NHS bodies are unresponsive to input from patients has only been made worse by COVID-19. But there is a unique opportunity to ensure their perspectives are at the heart of the re-design of NHS services from the outset.

And what does meaningful input from patients look like? The NHS must work in equal partnership with patients, and those around them – their families, carers and everyone who matters to them. It means giving patients roles in the actual decision-making processes rather than pursuing more potentially tokenistic methods, such as a panel with a solitary patient on them. Think Local Act Personal’s ‘ladder of co-production’ articulates what we should be aiming for – with co-production, at the top of the ladder, calling for services to work with patients from design to delivery.

Having been forced into a position of needing to change their expectations of care as a result of the pandemic, patients now must be considered agents in what their services look like moving forwards. Meaningful approaches to hear, and act on, the views of patients must be established – both as we look to the immediate re-starting of NHS services and embedded for the future – to deliver an NHS equipped for a post-COVID world.

Get in contact with Rachel Power via