"In The Middle Of Difficulty Lies Opportunity" (Albert Einstein)

Jessie Cunnett is Head of Health and Social Care at Traverse, an employee-owned organisation which supports the public sector in areas including Consultation, Evaluation, Engagement, Organisational Development and Social Investment. During the pandemic Jessie led rapid research studies to shine a light on how people have experienced accessing services under lockdown.

Can a crisis be an opportunity?

My professional experience would suggest, yes, very much so. It is often when things can’t get any worse, when the usual rules are laid to one side, that courage and appetite for innovation come to the foreground. There have been a few memorable and highly charged examples of this in my career. When I look back, these moments are when I have done the work I am most proud of.

In the wake of the failings at Mid Staffordshire, together with the people affected by what happened, we were able to conceive, create and launch Engaging Communities Staffordshire.

Eight years on and now known as Engaging Community Solutions, it is a thriving social enterprise that brings together community engagement and consultation, social research, independent advocacy and Healthwatch services. It is one of the largest providers of local Healthwatch services in the country, supporting hundreds of thousands of people every year to have their voices heard. Creating it was possible because the status quo wasn’t an option. Patients and families wanted to be heard and to own the solution.

More recently, in the shadows of the scandal at Morecambe Bay and its devastating impact on families, the concept of person-centred regulation was realised and the establishment of the Public Support Service was made possible.

This happened because the Nursing and Midwifery Council was ready to be brave. It was clear that business as usual wasn’t an option. With no blue-print for how to solve the problems, there was an opportunity to push hard at the boundaries of possibility. To achieve this change, we established a steering group including people who had experienced devastating life-changing events. They were able to help guide and challenge us. We then set up a team to be a point of personal support for people through the fitness to practice process, a 24 hour helpline to provide much-needed emotional support, and an advocacy service so that people who found it hard to express what had happened could work with an advocate.

All this was achieved in twelve months.

It would not have been possible without a sense of opportunity for change borne out of crisis. This team has been shortlisted this year for a prestigious HSJ Patient Safety Award.

And now we find ourselves, despite shops, pubs and cinemas re-opening and some sense of normality returning, still in the depths of a global pandemic. The implications for health and care in every region of the country are far-reaching. In many respects, services will never be the same again.

As we learn to live with the impact of COVID-19, there is an opportunity to identify problems with new eyes and spot possibilities where we couldn’t see them before.

The use of digital technology in the delivery of health and care services may be one such example. Social distancing and a restriction of face-to-face contact as a strategy for managing the spread of the virus have led to a rapid increase in the use of digital technology. This represents a key change to the way services are being provided. They are moving from a traditional model of face to face care to a “digital by default” option at pace as remote and virtual consultations and appointments become the norm.

The key to locating opportunity in crisis lies in our willingness to learn from the experiences of those who have been affected and have had to adapt.

This will enable us to understand what people are looking for and find solutions that will not just meet their needs but improve on what was possible before.

In the course of our recent work, the Doctor Will Zoom You Now, we have been engaging with patients to understand their experience journey of remote consultations.

This project has highlighted a real appetite for what virtual appointments have to offer to clinicians – namely, better use of time, records of conversations, time to plan and prepare, and more focused attention. However, these opportunities can only be truly successful if they are balanced with how to make appointments work for patients. They must allow for quality personal communication, respect for people’s time, information about what to expect, willingness to learn and adapt through feedback, and, perhaps most importantly, consideration of those who may be left behind because they will never be able to access remote consultations.

As an optimist, I look to find the good in any situation.

Through my work at Traverse, I feel grateful to be able to look for the opportunities in the crisis that we find ourselves in. And I am confident that together we can shape a better future from it.