Laura Spratling is the Programme Director for Diabetes and Stroke Prevention at the Health Innovation Network (HIN) in South London, and works across the NHS, public health, research and industry. In this week’s interview, she talks to Pippa Macnair about her recent experiences volunteering with the King’s Sierra Leone Partnership in Freetown, and gives some tips for young individuals looking to start their career in public health.
You recently returned from a 6-month secondment in Freetown, Sierra Leone. What were the key challenges you faced moving from the NHS to this very different context?
For me the main challenge was the sheer severity of advanced disease that hospital staff were treating. In my years in UK hospitals I had never seen so many patients so poorly as I saw in the first few weeks in Freetown. But while there was what sometimes felt like an overwhelming amount of suffering, there was also a good deal of hope. Patients, relatives and staff are incredibly warm and friendly, greeting strangers they pass in the corridor and one person who I hadn’t met before thanked me profusely for my work! I met some incredible people who are 110% committed to building a better healthcare system. The work they do every day is truly impressive and humbling, particularly when you remember that they have far fewer resources of all types than we do in the NHS.
The recent news of the flooding and mud slide disaster in Freetown is devastating and the hospital and all my colleagues and friends there are very much in my thoughts at the moment.
What lessons did you take from your experiences in Sierra Leone that you have been able to integrate into your current role?
My experience prompted me to reflect a lot on 1) how the NHS could make a greater impact with the resources that we have and 2) how better collaboration between NHS staff and organisations can help us to achieve this. The experience of working in a lower resource environment focuses the mind on what is really important and how to make that happen within scarce resources. For example, Connaught’s medical records team (who I worked alongside) made huge progress in 6 months towards implementing a well functioning system, without needing significant investment in infrastructure or consumables.
I am now finding in my NHS role that I am constantly asking these key questions of myself and others: What is really important here? How can we use the resource better? Are we collaborating and communicating as well as we should be? The discipline of asking these questions is leading me to new and better outcomes and is a fascinating process. I feel like I am seeing my role with a new clarity.
Your current role at the Health Innovation Network requires extensive collaboration with a diverse range of partners. What would you consider to be the main challenges and opportunities of such partnership working?
The main challenges of partnership working as I see it are: creating the space for new and collaborative conversations within the day-to-day pressures of running clinical services; aligning what can sometimes be divergent agendas and incentives among organisations; finding supportive ways to hold individual partners to account for their role in making the partnership succeed.
The opportunities are limitless. The purpose of the collaborations that my team drives in diabetes and cardiovascular disease is to improve the health of the South London population by delivering prevention and treatment in new ways that better meet citizens’ needs. Ultimately we can only achieve this as a health and care sector by working effectively together.
What advice would you give to budding public health professionals at the start of their careers?
· Spend plenty of time shadowing/observing the services that you are involved in and learn as much as you can about the perspectives of the citizens you serve and the staff trying to help them. This understanding is crucial for your personal effectiveness.
· Learn as much as you can about the evidence on successful behaviour change as it applies to your area of work.
· Be open minded and actively seek out opportunities to learn from colleagues in other disciplines – you never know, speaking to them could open a whole new opportunity for collaboration.
· Have high standards for your own work and that of others (if something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t), but don’t forget to be kind to yourself and others too.