Message from Frances Hasler – Healthwatch Camden Director

This is my last blog for Healthwatch Camden, after nearly seven years here I am moving on. I want to welcome my successor, Matthew Parris who joins us from Healthwatch Surrey.

I came here because I really wanted to work in Camden. The thriving voluntary sector, the diverse community, and the open-minded culture seemed like a good foundation for a successful local Healthwatch. Camden has some excellent services, including some renowned teaching hospitals, so it was also an opportunity to work with people who are in the vanguard of developments in health and social care.

Camden also has huge variation. The gap in health outcomes between the least and most advantaged communities is stark. There is a lot to do to close this gap, and Healthwatch Camden has always been focused on what we can do to help combat health inequalities.

Although most services are good, there is variation between them. One of Healthwatch Camden’s first major reports was on variation between GP services. Since then, a number of less good practices have closed and others have changed hands. The picture is more encouraging now. We looked at problems for disabled people in communicating with their GP practice and identified some simple things that practices could do to make things easier. I’m pleased to say that our ideas were very well received and were implemented across the borough.

Seeing improvements over time is part of the reward of working at Healthwatch Camden. The development is not always steady, the challenges of austerity and of increasing pressures in health and social care have had impact even in a comparatively well-resourced area such as Camden. What helps us to continue to have positive impact is the strength of our relationships with the health and social care bodies in the borough, and the support we get from voluntary and community organisations and from our neighbouring local Healthwatch. 

Our relationships with the Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS) have been cemented by always sharing our offices with VCS organisations. My thanks to our former landlords, Voluntary Action Camden (VAC), who helped us to get launched, and Somers Town Community Association, who gave us a home when VAC’s lease ran out. Now we are based in the Greenwood Centre, which gives us new contacts. I am delighted that our valued partners, the African Health Forum have recently come to share our office.

Moving on is a good time to look back at what has worked well for us since our launch in 2013. This includes taking up the offer to be represented on some key local bodies, the Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) and the Health and Wellbeing Board. These have provided a forum for raising issues and for influencing decisions. As our work developed we were able to be more influential because our input was more evidence based.

Deciding to be the sort of local Healthwatch we are was a response to the specific Camden context. We have a large and thriving voluntary and community sector, so our work must complement that. We have an abundance of specialist as well as generalist health services – we need to work extra hard to get heard in these large organisations, where Camden residents form only a fraction of their overall patient group. The quality of our reports has helped us to develop stronger relationships with the NHS trusts – they can see that our approach can help them to get better results.

Our success has also come from being focused. We have not sat on lots of committees and we have not spent time on replicating the general service monitoring that is undertaken by the CCG.  To a large extent our focus has always been fixed for us by our residents. In any survey we do, general practice, mental health and public health issues will always predominate. Social inequality and related health inequality in the borough will always be a factor. So those are the areas we have looked at most, and are likely to continue to look at in future.

Our influence rests on our independence. In our income generating work we have been careful only to take work that fits within our remit and that we can publish independently, so that we are always accountable first and foremost to people in Camden.

On a personal note I am pleased to be handing on the work in such a strong position, although I don’t underestimate the funding challenge of the coming year. The organisation has always been a collective endeavour, no single individual is responsible for either the successes or the occasional failures. I extend my warm thanks to all the many people who have worked alongside me since we started, helping to build what we have now. Particular thanks to the past and present Chairs of our board – Connie Smith and Saloni Thakrar, both of whom have given their time, their advice and their support in huge measure.

I look forward to catching up with progress in the future and wish Matthew and his colleagues every success in 2020.