Getting our communication tools right

Dr James Maguire is the clinical lead for secondary care in the COVID-19 Clinical Cell at NHSX. He is also a geriatric medicine registrar.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is demonstrating the ability of NHS and social care staff to come together in a time of real crisis.  

Communications tools like WhatsApp and Twitter are an incredible way of sharing information, but over the coming weeks and months, it will be important for health and care staff to shift to communications tools which better support remote ways of working and care.  Staff already know that they must not use personal email accounts to discuss sensitive work matters and while NHSX's recently published IG guidance for NHS staff and guidance for social care staff, allows us to use our personal messaging accounts for work during the COVID-19 response, we should consider moving away from them where possible. 

This week NHSX and NHS Digital reached an agreement with Microsoft to give all NHS staff and social care providers that use NHSMail, access to Microsoft Team, free for an initial period of time. 

The imminent rollout of this messaging platform has the potential to really transform how we work together across health and social care during this current crisis and beyond. Some of the immediate benefits include:

  • Supporting remote and mobile working between colleagues
  • Enabling staff to deliver advice during the outbreak
  • Providing information governance compliant secure messaging 
  • Enabling audio and video conferencing and virtual meetings between colleagues 
  • Added functionality such as file sharing

There are some initial resources including a video introduction to Microsoft Teamsguidance on the support site,  and further information is available from the Microsoft website.  We’re in the process of producing specific guidance for front line staff to allow them to understand the softwares full functionality.

For me, this brings an additional benefit - the ability to separate your work and your personal life.  

We all know that apps like Whatsapp and Messenger are used by clinical teams up and down the country right now. They have a lot of clear benefits - they’re simple to use, take very little effort to set up and fit into the pattern of our day to day lives. But they also have some drawbacks. They can blur the lines between work and personal life, meaning it can be difficult to avoid constant messages when you’re not actually in work., meaning it’s increasingly difficult to switch off and wind down outside of working hours. With the response to COVID-19 expected to last many months, it’ll become all the more important to avoid information overload and staff burnout. 

We know from organisations such as West Suffolk Hospital, that dedicated communications and task management systems are popular with clinicians and can save staff time by reducing their time spent bleeping and emailing. With the right security settings, staff can share clinical information and importantly they can be turned off when not at work. As the COVID-19 situation unfolds, there is also an opportunity to use staff who are isolated at home but otherwise well. Two examples of how these could change how we work include:

Digital ward rounds - remote staff with the right access to clinical systems can assist by completing documentation, orders and administrative tasks freeing up other clinicians to provide individual care. 

Digital multi-disciplinary team or practice meetings - teams can meet virtually, share pictures or files and make decisions in a more timely way when appropriate. This can reduce time to travel cross-site and may reduce the spread of infection. 

Giving all NHS staff and as many social care providers as possible,  access to Microsoft Teams means that every organisation will have immediate access to a secure and user friendly communication platform that works on different devices.  Alongside this, NHSX is evaluating other messaging systems and simplifying the process of buying them for organisations. 

In light of the Microsoft Teams roll out we are developing guidance specifically for health and care staff, to help them set it up for use in their areas. Advice will include how to organise department or practice groups, setting up multidisciplinary team (MDT) meetings, and how to use of additional functionality such as storage of documents such as lists or MDT outcomes

These tools have the potential to revolutionise the ways teams work in the current and unprecedented circumstances - ultimately reducing the need for face-to-face contact and so protecting patients, the public and other staff from COVID-19.  

This needs to be deployed at pace and we will need everyone's help to make the change.