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We need to rebuild trust and show we’re open for business

After backlogs due to COVID-19, people with cancer need to know we are there for them, to advise, to care and to listen

After backlogs due to COVID-19, people with cancer need to know we are there for them, to advise, to care and to listen

At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, community and acute service providers consistently said that the NHS would continue to be ‘open for business’ for people with cancer.

However, referral rates to cancer services fell significantly and screening programmes were paused during the first wave. The good news is that despite a second wave, self-referral rates for cancer checks are nearly back to pre-COVID 19 levels. Nevertheless, some patients continue to report difficulties and dissatisfaction with accessing healthcare services, with online and phone the preferred platforms for communication by GP surgeries and hospitals, but not always by patients.

    After backlogs due to COVID-19, people with cancer need to know we are there for them, to advise, to care and to listen

    A masked nurse talking to a masked male patient. After backlogs due to COVID-19, people with cancer need to know nurses are there for them, to advise, to care and to listen
    Picture: iStock

    At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, community and acute service providers consistently said that the NHS would continue to be ‘open for business’ for people with cancer.

    However, referral rates to cancer services fell significantly and screening programmes were paused during the first wave. The good news is that despite a second wave, self-referral rates for cancer checks are nearly back to pre-COVID 19 levels. Nevertheless, some patients continue to report difficulties and dissatisfaction with accessing healthcare services, with online and phone the preferred platforms for communication by GP surgeries and hospitals, but not always by patients.

    Compounding this, family members or friends are often not welcome to accompany them to hospital or GP visits, with many patients having to undergo treatments and appointments without the support of their loved ones by their side. So when some patients have said that the NHS has not been 'open for business' for them, what they mean by that may vary. And what hospitals and GP surgeries mean by that may also vary.

    ‘Patients continue to report difficulty and dissatisfaction with accessing healthcare services’

    Therefore, in the midst of the challenges we have to ask ourselves whether the increase in self-referral rates built on firm foundations with the public’s trust intact at the core? It is imperative that people always access services within an appropriate time frame and feel safe and supported.

    It is this trust that will prove essential if we are to effectively tackle the backlog that has built up over the past six months, as well as maintain the number of patients coming forward with symptoms and those attending screening.

    Building trust is easy to say but often it is difficult to build quickly and maintain, particularly if someone feels they have had a bad experience. Rebuilding and maintaining trust after the first wave and now during the second wave of a pandemic is not without challenges, but it is essential as we continue to ‘unlock’ services and encourage people to come forward for care.

    Tell people openly and honestly what is happening and why

    The three components of that trust are communication, empathy and person to person interaction. Without doubt, we need to focus on communication. We must communicate often and well, telling people openly and honestly what is happening and why. This is all the more difficult when we continue to receive so many different messages ourselves and the sands continually shift beneath our own feet.

    We need to not only feel empathy but also to express it. As we know, it’s never easy to be a patient, but it must be even more difficult during a pandemic.

    Last, we need to walk the walk – we shouldn’t just tell people what we’re doing but actually show them, to make it tangible. All the while we will do this against the backdrop of an exhausted workforce and chronic staff shortages.

    ‘There needs to be a warm, knowledgeable and skilled person at the end of the phone, on the other side of the door and at the appointment’

    Inevitably, the most important things remain the basics. We need to ensure there is a range of routes in so that people can access healthcare easily. Doors need to be open and appointments need to be available. Telephones, doors and appointments are not enough – there needs to be a warm, knowledgeable and skilled person at the end of the phone, on the other side of the door and at the appointment.

    As always, the most important resource to build back that better future we’ve heard such a lot about continues to be people. We need to ensure that patients aren’t just given a bland statement that ‘we’re open for business’. They need to know and feel that we’re truly there for them, to advise, to care and to listen.

    The part that we as individuals play in this cannot be overestimated. Take time to take a breath so that you’re not running completely on empty – your warmth, knowledge and skill is the most precious commodity within the NHS right now.


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