It’s your NHS – so remember to share your experience and have your say

A couple from Chelmsford hit the headlines recently after they decided to go for IVF treatment – only to find that the NHS in Mid-Essex no longer fund it. They were understandably devastated and now have to pay for expensive cycles of IVF themselves.

Faced with a shortfall of millions of pounds, local NHS managers have had to make a really hard decision. Where would they have to make cuts? Which services are more “essential” than others? Not an easy choice to make.

But if we look behind the headline, there is another issue here that hasn’t been touched on, and that’s around public awareness of when or how services are going to change.

Big decisions, like cutting an IVF service, are not made in isolation. As it stands, NHS services are obliged to hold a public consultation if there is going to be a “significant change to a service.”  So, although the couple didn’t know about it, the NHS in Mid Essex held a public consultation for 10 weeks in the summer of 2014. It ran an online survey, held several public workshops, and publicised the proposed changes in the local media.

In fact, at most times, it’s likely that your local Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG), hospital Trust or social care service will be holding a public consultation, perhaps by running an online survey or hosting a public event to give you the opportunity to have your say.

Now, whether these events and consultations are publicised well enough is a good question. But the point is this: if you look, these consultations are there for you to take part in, and if enough people do, the views and experiences of the public become harder to ignore.

Of course, we have to be realistic about what we can expect to happen as a result of public participation. A consultation is not the same as a referendum – we can’t simply veto what we don’t like. But the experiences and needs of people who actually use services should be a vital consideration for NHS and social care managers when they make decisions about the future of services, whether IVF, cancer care, or home help.

At this time of budget cuts and growing demand, NHS and social care services are being forced to make very tough decisions about how they spend their money and what care they offer. And if the voice of patients and service users is going to be heard, it’s vitally important that people take the time to share their views and experiences, whether through a consultation, or through an organisation like Healthwatch Essex.

But in doing so, we might also want to ask ourselves a question too – because if the NHS and social care services are starting to change, maybe we as users of services will have to change as well. Is it right that we assume that services we have become used to should stay the same? Perhaps it isn’t. And if change is coming, we should make sure we’re part of it. By sharing our experience, and voicing our opinion when we’re given the chance, we can help shape what future NHS and social care services look like.