Virtual reality - the digital success of NHS Providers annual conference 2020

Adam Brimelow profile picture

18 December 2020

Adam Brimelow
Director of Communications


The NHS Providers annual conference and exhibition was our first foray into staging an event on anything like this scale via a virtual platform. In committing to the conference, we had to confront some difficult questions. Would people want to sign up, speak and participate in a virtual event like this? Could we make it work for sponsors and exhibitors, our media partners and journalists? And above all, would we be able to address meaningfully the challenges and concerns our members have faced during the toughest year in the history of the NHS, providing an opportunity to exchange ideas, share learning and celebrate what has been accomplished?

The answer on all counts was an emphatic "yes". Delegate numbers were up 40% on the previous year. We staged 39 sessions, drawing on a superb array of speakers, including "big hitters" such as Sir Simon Stevens and Amanda Pritchard from NHS England and NHS Improvement, and the secretary of state for health and social care, Matt Hancock. There was a real buzz around the conference, reflected by a full week of prominent print and broadcast news coverage, and a surge in social media activity.

Inevitably, the event – under the heading Reflect and recover – was shaped largely by the impact of COVID-19.

Adam Brimelow    Director of Communications

Inevitably, the event – under the heading Reflect and recover – was shaped largely by the impact of COVID-19. As the conference got under way, we published a survey highlighting trust leaders' worries that the sustained physical, psychological and emotional pressures on health staff over recent months were threatening to push them beyond their limits. 99% of those who responded were concerned about current levels of burnout across the workforce.

Support for staff, including their wellbeing and mental health, was an important theme of the conference, addressed in several sessions including a discussion on the virtual "plenary" stage between our conference chair, journalist and broadcaster Samira Ahmed, and the NHS chief people officer, Prerana Issar. She described the NHS as an "instrument of social justice" which should lead the way on equality, diversity and inclusion for the population that we serve and for people working within the health service.

One of the most compelling sessions was a trust CEOs' panel discussion on confronting white privilege, chaired by Raj Jain.

Adam Brimelow    Director of Communications

In planning the conference, we were determined to progress this debate, and identify actions to address racism, prejudice and health inequalities in order to better serve Black, Asian and minority ethnic patients, service users and staff. One of the most compelling sessions was a trust CEOs' panel discussion on confronting white privilege, chaired by Raj Jain, with powerful contributions from Patricia Miller, Roisin Fallon-Williams and Richard Shepherd. They spoke movingly of their personal and professional experiences in recognising and dealing with racial injustice.

Patricia Miller also featured in a discussion on diversity in leadership alongside Roger Kline – research fellow at Middlesex University who designed the Workforce Race Equality Standard (WRES). Patricia spoke powerfully of a "cultural barometer" (within WRES and staff survey data) that showed staff from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds do not feel psychologically safe at work. Roger emphasised the need to end evidence-free interventions, improve recruitment processes and prioritise discrimination as part of a wider removal of "toxic behaviours" in the workplace.

In this and many other sessions there was a heavy sense that the NHS will need to draw on the resilience, skills and commitment of all its staff as we head into winter with COVID cases rising.

Adam Brimelow    Director of Communications

In this and many other sessions there was a heavy sense that the NHS will need to draw on the resilience, skills and commitment of all its staff as we head into winter with COVID cases rising, work to recover services continuing, and winter pressures looming. This was a key theme in the opening speech by the chief executive of NHS Providers, Chris Hopson. He stressed that despite disruption, at no point in the pandemic had the NHS become a COVID-only service, and he highlighted the way that hospitals, mental health community and ambulance services carried on caring for patients – COVID and non-COVID – based on clinical need.

We felt it was important to celebrate successful innovation by trusts and frontline staff to overcome the challenges posed by the virus. Our third report in the Providers deliver series, Resilient and resourceful through COVID-19 featured case studies highlighting new ideas and approaches that made a difference for patients and staff. They encompassed a range of settings and activities, including the manufacture of personal protective equipment, development of respiratory kit, and working with patients, private companies and other services to improve care.

Our Providers deliver live virtual stand offered more than 40 additional examples and we promoted successful initiatives to restore service capacity levels through our activity tracker. We also published Spotlight on…digital transformation in response to COVID-19, which showcased the way trusts have accelerated the introduction of new technology and digital solutions as part of their response to the pandemic. This theme was developed in two key conference sessions reflecting the work of our successful digital boards programme.

An important lesson from the pandemic has been the pivotal role played by provider collaboratives in helping to propel integration and the development of system working.

Adam Brimelow    Director of Communications

An important lesson from the pandemic has been the pivotal role played by provider collaboratives in helping to propel integration and the development of system working. This was the focus of a key breakout session which examined the way providers are working together at system level, taking on responsibilities for planning services, improving access and deploying resources. It also looked at the contribution of these collaboratives within and beyond system boundaries, and the importance of allowing variation to flourish.

The debate over funding is always an important element at our annual conference, and so it proved again, with the comprehensive spending review (CSR) expected soon. Several national newspapers highlighted Chris Hopson's warning that worrying gaps in health spending must be addressed. Reflecting on the way politicians have neglected social care over many years, he pointed out that the NHS could face a similar fate where funding failed to keep up with demand, pushing it into crisis.

This conference captured the mood of the moment – concern and apprehension over the coming challenges and a desire to confront inequality and injustice.

Adam Brimelow    Director of Communications

This conference captured the mood of the moment – concern and apprehension over the coming challenges and a desire to confront inequality and injustice. But also pride in what's been accomplished, gratitude to those who have given so much, and a shared sense of determination from trust leaders to do all they can for patients and staff through the difficult months ahead.

This blog was first published in Public Sector Focus shortly after our annual conference and exhibition. 

About the author

Adam Brimelow profile picture

Adam Brimelow
Director of Communications
@adambrimelow

Adam Brimelow is NHS Providers’ director of communications. Prior to joining as head of news in 2016 he was a BBC health correspondent for 14 years, working across a range of outlets including Today and World at One on radio 4, TV news bulletins and online. Previously Adam also worked for BBC World Service and in local radio, based in Birmingham and Manchester. Read more

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