Local Healthwatch are funded by and accountable to councils, so it is up to local authorities to choose the best commissioning route for Healthwatch to achieve value for money and flourish as an independent patient champion in their communities.
Drilling down into what is happening community by community is when you get the best evidence of the network’s impact. Healthwatch Isle of Wight have improved maternity services and Healthwatch Peterborough have helped engage prisoners to understand their health, while local GP surgeries have improved physical access and appointment booking thanks to Healthwatch Luton.
But what is it that enables an effective Healthwatch?
A good commissioner understands the importance of creating an environment in which Healthwatch can flourish. This means providing constructive oversight while understanding that Healthwatch is independent and should have full editorial freedom. We have seen that where this balance is struck, Healthwatch are able to thrive in their communities - even in the most troubled of health and social care systems.
Take Healthwatch Cumbria, which has been central to the development of the patient engagement plan for the Success Regime in their region. With two acute trusts in special measures, services operating under budget constraints and the local authority facing massive cuts, commissioners have still managed to create a Healthwatch that has had a huge impact locally.
While examples such as Cumbria demonstrate commissioning success, there are still challenges.
We estimate that 40% of our commissioners have changed over the last two years. Sometimes this is unavoidable, but bound to have an impact while a new relationship is then built from scratch. Many Healthwatch also have short commissions of one or two years, making it difficult for Healthwatch to sustain impact.
So, how can commissioners and local Healthwatch work in partnership to continue to be sustainable and effective?
As local authorities continue to work under extra pressure and squeezed financial resources, it is essential that Healthwatch are given sufficient capacity to carry out their statutory activities
In their report earlier this year, the Kings Fund reiterated our sentiment, calling on commissioners to “continue to provide specific and significant support to local Healthwatch, as they continue to become more firmly embedded in the local system”.
I would urge councils to embrace the unique role of Healthwatch in providing insight to what matters to local people and giving input to services to ensure they are properly shaped for the future.
Ultimately, your Healthwatch can enable you to deliver better health and social care services to your communities – please do make the most of them.