With both staff capacity and budgets being constrained, the majority of trust communicators said they were fearful that their professional development, as well as that of their teams, is being held back. There were broadly three main factors identified by communicators that are having a harmful impact on training and developmental opportunities.
Constrained funding and staff capacity
This was the most common reason identified by senior communicators. For the majority of respondents, they and members of their teams not only lack the funding to undertake specialist training, but even if they did they would struggle to devote the time given the workload pressures they are experiencing. While the NHS is under significant financial pressure, with non-clinical areas likely to be most targeted for cost savings, these findings paint a worrying picture of communicators being increasingly squeezed with little or no time for professional development.
One said: “There are some training opportunities offered, but due to work pressure it is impossible to release staff for whole day (expensive) training – often in central London.” Another agreed: “There are very few dedicated training opportunities, we have to push very hard to be considered for CIM/CIPR qualifications as well as courses and conferences. And even if we get approval, trying to find the time to accommodate this is very hard.” Another commented: “There is little training budget and the courses I would wish to pursue require significant investment. This type of investment is either unavailable or focused on clinical areas.”
A worrying development noted by one respondent is that they have to fund training out of their own pockets: “I have only rarely had any non-mandatory training and specialist comms training in the NHS. I have to pay for my own CPD. I do not think that communications is a valued profession within the NHS.” Those in other trusts have also been barred from ‘non-essential travel’ which prevents them from attending external courses
Lack of training opportunities in the regions
Closely linked to the issue of constrained budgets and staff capacity was a further barrier cited by communicators – what many perceived as a lack of training and development opportunities outside of London. Many communicators said they would attend more training sessions if they were held in their region, for example:
Another commented: “Accessing training is difficult as many of the opportunities are London-based and we have been required to reduce our budget for travel – this feels unfair on employees based at distance from the centre and there is therefore an inequity of training and development.”
A perceived lack of support from the national bodies
Respondents were asked whether they thought communications professionals working in trusts are receiving enough training and development from within the NHS system. Only one in five respondents thought they were. When comparing this to the number of continuing professional development (CPD) hours respondents commit per year – those who feel there are enough training and development opportunities commit on average 71 hours per year, whereas those who do not commit on average 40 hours per year.
While the majority of trust communicators do not think there is enough training and development from the NHS system, this view is likely to change given the extra focus that both NHS Improvement and NHS England have put into communications development activities in recent months. Shortly before the survey for this report was undertaken, NHS Improvement and NHS England announced a new development programme for NHS communicators across all levels and parts of the system. The programme consists of four key elements:
- A bespoke post-graduate NHS communications qualification aimed at Band 7 and 8 communications professionals “who wish to develop their knowledge and who aspire to positions of leadership in NHS professional communications”. This is a part-time post-graduate course that is being delivered in partnership with the Centre for Health Communication Research and Buckinghamshire New University.
- Regional communications and engagement workshops – the national bodies now run bi-monthly regional communications and engagement development workshops which aim to “improve practical skills as well as understanding of the more strategic elements of communications and engagement vital to delivering NHS objectives locally, regionally and nationally”.
- Mentoring scheme – designed to support NHS communicators at all levels. The national bodies are looking for senior NHS communications professionals to mentor those in their local area or region.
- A new online network – CommsLink – for NHS communicators to share best practice and engage in discussions.
This sits alongside the more general, proactive support that NHS England and NHS Improvement provide to communicators by, for example, speaking at external events run by organisations such as NHS Providers and the Association of Healthcare Communications and Marketing, as well as helping to judge NHS communications awards.
Given the renewed commitment from both NHS Improvement and NHS England to widen the range of training and development opportunities for NHS communicators, it is therefore likely that perceptions may well change at the time of our next survey later in 2018. This had already been noted by one or two respondents, for example: “This is getting better. NHSI's comms development programme is good, and as the system settles after its many upheavals, NHSE and NHSI are bringing back the comms networks which are so helpful,” one said.
Finally, a number of respondents called for greater links between the NHS communications profession and professional bodies such as the Chartered Institute for Public Relations (CIPR) and the Chartered Institute for Marketing (CIM). As we touch on during the final chapter of this report, this may also be useful in developing a more formal career pathway for NHS communicators.