Jason Gordon

Putting patients – and employees – first

Jason Gordon urges the NHS to invest in equality of access for staff members who may face a range of literacy challenges.


‘Putting patients first’ is one of the fundamental pillars of the NHS constitution, and quite rightly so. But to ensure a thriving, sustainable health service it’s vital that we don’t overlook the needs of another crucial group of stakeholders – its employees.

The intertwining themes of patient interests and staff empowerment were centre stage when I attended the recent King’s Fund Annual Conference in London. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt pinpointed the three ‘pillars’ of access, quality and finance that together determine the efficiency and performance of our own public healthcare system.

The importance of the first of these pillars couldn’t be greater – but there are several dimensions to the concept of ‘access’. 

For patients, it can mean physical proximity to hospitals and GP services. It can mean making adequate adjustments for those with disabilities and impairments to interact with NHS services. It can also mean the delivery of cost-effective broadband services – and training in basic digital skills – that enables patients to book appointments or order repeat prescriptions online. 

Equally, access can mean empowering people with lower literacy levels – and individuals whose first language isn’t English – with the tools and confidence to read, understand and act on important medical information.

But what about ‘access’ in the context of the 1.6 million staff employed by the NHS across the UK? 

It came as welcome news in September that the NHS Equality and Diversity Council (EDC) has recommended that a Workforce Disability Equality Standard should be written into NHS standard contracts from 2018. This initiative has been spurred by academic studies on the experiences of disabled staff, as well as research by Disability Rights UK and NHS Employers ‘Different Choices, Different Voices‘, confirming that disabled people had poorer experiences of working in the NHS than their non-disabled colleagues.

It’s clear from these studies that conditions such as dyslexia are often significant impairments to the career progression of groups such as registered nurses. 

What’s more, of the total number of 1.6 million NHS workers, over 10% are officially categorised as being ‘non-British’ according to data from the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC). And as we’ve reported before in this blog, the British Medical Association (BMA) has confirmed that without the contribution of non-British staff, "many NHS services would struggle to provide effective care to their patients".

Individuals from over 200 overseas countries play an enormous role in the successful functioning of our health service – in all roles and at all levels. Inevitably, this means that proper provisions must be made to ensure this diverse workforce can access and interact with the systems and processes that allow each employee to do their job effectively. 

 All NHS doctors are now obligated to pass demanding English language skills tests. But this isn’t the case for over a million clinical and administrative support staff. And this inevitably raises the risk of many employees having significant challenges with a wide range of literacy-based tasks – from simple form filing to communicating directly with patients by email.

With the NHS spending a reported £60,000 daily on translation and interpreter services, it’s clear that significant savings could be realised by greater use of ‘self-service’ assistive technology solutions – like our own Read&Write software that supports public service employees with easy-to-use spelling and translation tools. 

As Patient Experience and Engagement expert Ceinwen Giles pointed out at this month’s King’s Fund conference, making NHS end-users feel included and valued as people pays tangible socioeconomic dividends. And surely the same obligations for inclusion and fair access extend to every health service employee.

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