Simple questions can make a difference

How can board members help to improve waiting times? Verity Winn from the Performance Audit Health Team looks back at our ‘Asking the Right Questions’ seminar.

NHS Waiting Times ReportPutting on an event to publicise a checklist sounds like an auditors dream… But how do you make it interesting for Independent Members of health boards with busy schedules and no shortage of important issues on their plate? The answer is in making it relevant and focused on practical things they can do to make a difference for patients. And also to create a safe space where they can feel comfortable sharing and working through the issues with people who are in the same boat.

For me a lot was riding on our ‘Asking the right questions’ event on 21st May. I spent most of last year buried in information about the NHS in Wales as one of the team working on our report on NHS Waiting Times. Our findings were worrying – waiting times are getting longer, some patients are coming to harm and more could be done about it. We did a lot of work to understand why waiting times are getting worse including the pressures on the NHS in terms of money, staff, beds and other resources. We also looked at what could be done differently and identified some significant opportunities for health boards to make better use of their existing resources.

All this work filled four reports – but we had the sneaking suspicion that not everyone would have time to read through all of it! We wanted to get our message across in the simplest way to the people who can use it to make a difference. Independent Members have a vital role in scrutinising health boards’ performance and holding them to account. We wanted to create a tool to help them ask the right questions to challenge their health boards – not just about whether waiting times are getting longer, but to understand what they’re doing to bring them down. The tool is our checklist. It sets out a series of questions to understand how the health board is performing on waiting times and how strong their plans to improve are.

The event was a new experience for me. Working in the central national studies team, we tend to move onto a new topic once our reports are published. That means we don’t often get to see the local impact our work has, or meet the people who can use our reports work to make change happen. But this event brought us face to face with Independent Members and reminded me that sometimes the simplest way to get a message across is by talking to people.

The event started with the spotlight on Dave Thomas, Director of the Performance Audit Health Team at the Wales Audit Office and Helen Birtwhistle, Director of the Welsh NHS Confederation. They answered questions about some of the challenges and opportunities facing the NHS in Wales and what needs to be done to improve waiting times for patients. You can watch the full discussion below. The rest of the day was filled with practical workshops based on the topics in our checklist.

It was great to see people sharing experiences and advice in such an open and supportive way. And really positive to see the commitment of Independent Members to putting the patient first and not shying away from difficult questions to make sure this happens. I was particularly interested to hear the suggestions of questions to ask health boards to understand what they’re doing to improve waiting times. At the end of the event, one person told us that the key thing he learnt was to ask questions in ‘the most simple language, hoping to get to the nub of the point’ – for me, he hit the nail on the head.

I was really pleased that the feedback we had from the event was overwhelmingly positive. Not that there isn’t always something to learn about how we could do things a little better next time. We are holding another event on ‘Asking the right questions’ in the Metropole Hotel in Llandrindod Wells on 13 July. If you’d like a place, please email good.practice@audit.wales. I look forward to meeting more of you there.

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