Continuing professional development in the NHS

By Anne Gregory

Question: How do you stay up to date in the fast moving, complex, communication hungry, resource-strapped world that is the NHS where every moment counts? Answer: you can’t afford not to be, it’s the mark of a true professional.

You’ll learn:

• About the continuing and growing need for strategic, trusted communications advisers
• How a lack of resource drives innovation and creativity, particularly in the NHS
• Pooling CPD resources also provides an opportunity for the public sector to consider ‘joined up’ public communication on some of the big issues facing society

What’s happening in NHS Communications?

Pre 2012 the NHS was centralised. It was run directly by the Department of Health and most of the Continuing Professional Development (CPD) for communication professionals was designed and provided by them. 

It was my privilege then to be involved in a project called NHS Evolve, a competency framework which provided a comprehensive catalogue of the knowledge, skills and standards needed by all NHS communicators. 

Since the Andrew Lansley reforms of 2012, the NHS has become much more fragmented. Hospital Foundation Trusts have more autonomy, Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) decide what local populations need and fund services, GPs are still relatively independent and the Regulator(s) have a big role in quality assuring and monitoring the funding of the NHS system. 

And that is what it is, a system. There are many other organisations in the system, such as Health and Well-being Boards, Public Health England and NHS Blood and Transport. All these moving parts means it is complex and difficult to navigate.

Health needs have also changed. People are living longer and as they age they become frailer and suffer from more health issues, often all at the same time. 

Concurrently information demands are higher, from the press, from the public and increasingly from other parts of the fragmented system. 

In a world dominated by sound bites and ‘keep it simple stupid,’ it is increasingly challenging to communicate the complexities involved while keeping it intelligible. 

The need for strategic, trusted communication advisers operating at the highest level has never been greater.

Being a communicator, particularly if you are in a small team of two or three people, because that is how it is in many hospitals, means you face huge demand and challenges. Rather like the NHS itself. 

So what is there to help you keep up to date and at the forefront of professional development?

Against the stereotype, my experience of working with public sector communicators demonstrates they are ahead of their compatriots in the private sector. 

The fact that they are always publicly accountable means that they are highly skilled advisers. Their lack of resources often drives innovation and creativity: they are adept at using all channels available and devise content that is relevant and important.

Gaining access to training and development

With no central resource available, how do NHS communicators gain CPD?

There have been a number of initiatives over the last few years and they are gaining momentum after a bit of a slow start.

Since 2015 NHS Improvement (NHSI), the system regulator and NHS England which has overarching responsibility for commissioning through the system, have been running a post-graduate certificate in Health Care Communication with Buckinghamshire New University. It is for aspiring Communication leaders in Trusts and now for CCGs.

According to Alison Brown, Head of Communications Development at NHSI, there was a need to standardise, raise standards and enhance the strategic capability of communication staff to deliver the objectives of their organisations.

This joint body is also providing seminars on the issues challenging Trusts and has re-launched CommsLink. This is an online resource and network for all NHS communicators populated with case studies, campaign materials, lessons learned: all aimed at sharing good practice and for learning. 

Some of the larger NHS organisations have developed training based on their own expertise. For example NHS Digital has built a series of case studies aimed at enhancing digital capability throughout the system.

NHS Providers, which is a ‘trade association’ of healthcare providers including ambulance, mental health and hospital Trusts, runs a Communications Leads Network offering a forum for sharing ideas, learning best practice and addressing the issues facing health communicators.

The Association for Healthcare Communications and Marketing is yet another network for communicators working in the system supporting training and professional development and also running a prestigious annual Awards event that celebrates best practice.

Many health system communicators also access CPD programmes from the professional body, the Chartered Institute of Public Relations and the UK trade body, the Public Relations Communications Association.

Sensibly, the health communications community has been linking up with other parts of the public sector which have more highly developed CPD programmes.

LG Communications is a national body made up of an association of authorities working to raise the standard of communications in local government. LGComms has a full and sophisticated offering of CPD including their own Academy, a seminar programme, a Future Leaders programme and a resource bank including good practice guides.

The Government Communications Service (GCS) which is the professional body for those working in Government, also allows access to their whole range of development courses, tools, guides and best practice.

On offer here is the GCS Curriculum which provides 1600 free training places on a range of courses and at a variety of levels. The Early Talent programme and the Senior Talent programme, a Masters course run with the University of Huddersfield for those with high potential, are two year structured offerings which develop leadership capabilities.

Importantly the GCS offers a Personal Development Plan template that helps communicators build a planned approach to their own professional progress. This can be used in conjunction with a professional Competency Framework that captures all the knowledge and skills required to operate as a competent professional in public service.

That the NHS taps into all these initiatives in different parts of the public sector is good. Public sector organisations are having to work more closely together on a range of issues including health and social care, housing and homelessness, loneliness and social exclusion – the root of many health problems.

As they learn and develop their professional skills and knowledge together, they also have the opportunity to consider ‘joined up’ public communication on some of these linked ‘wicked’ problems. 

What about CPD into the future?

While it’s true to say that a coherent, consistent, systematic CPD offer in NHS communication is a work in progress, there are other moves in the communication space that will help. As the whole profession rises to the challenge of a more fast moving, complex, interconnected and demanding communication environment, new initiatives are being developed. 

The Global Alliance, the international confederation of professional associations, is developing the Global Capability Framework. This establishes the key capabilities that all communicators should have wherever they live and work but can also be customised and added to for particular employers, sectors and even countries and regions around the world.

The work is being led by the University of Huddersfield and will be launched in April 2018. At that stage NHS communicators, like those from any other organisation, will be able benchmark themselves against the framework. 

Software will enable them to plan their own development future. Maybe at that stage the NHS will be able to leapfrog intermediary developments and go straight to be a leader in CPD. With NHS Digital being one of the interested parties in this development, it looks like it certainly could be.


Professor Anne Gregory is Chair in Corporate Communication at the University of Huddersfield. She is a former President of the CIPR, former Chair of the Global Alliance and currently leads the worldwide Global Capability Project. Anne is a non-executive Director of Airedale NHS Foundation Trust.

Twitter: @GregsAnne