Working for communities through effective collaboration

By Vicki Bibby, Director of Strategy, Governance and Performance at Public Health Scotland

As partners across the UK adapt and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, effective collaboration has never been more important for improving and protecting the health and wellbeing of communities. Vicki Bibby, Director of Strategy, Governance and Performance at Public Health Scotland, says it’s an area that goes to the heart of their vision to create a Scotland where everybody thrives…

We’re living in a time of high public awareness and engagement with public health, with the pandemic bringing it into the public conscience like never before. While reducing new infections, maintaining the capacity of our NHS, and saving lives may be at forefront of our thoughts, what some people might not appreciate is the pivotal role played by effective partnerships in responding to the pandemic overall.

Delivering improvements to public health requires a broad range of partners to come together, agree and organise a response to prevent disease, promote health and prolong life: a vision we can all relate to as COVID-19 continues to disrupt our lives. And while collaboration in itself is nothing new, the scale of partnership working we’re seeing now is unprecedented and we’re keen to see it maintained long after the pandemic ends.

Public Health Scotland (PHS) launched in April 2020 exists to challenge health inequalities and to improve lives for communities across Scotland. As the pandemic has shown, though, we can’t do it alone, and our success will be gauged on how well we work with others.

We set out our stall early on, and collaboration is a central theme in our Strategic Plan. But what does that mean in practice?

Our immediate priority as a new organisation has been responding to COVID-19, a huge effort that embodies a whole system response. We’ve worked with a diverse range of partners including Scottish Government, NHS Scotland, the Scottish Ambulance Service, Local Government, the Third Sector, NHS National Services Scotland to name but a few.

PHS led the design and implementation of the national Contact Tracing system for COVID-19 in Scotland. This was in collaboration with local public health teams and the national health boards, NHS Education Scotland and NHS National Services Scotland. This programme was developed and delivered at pace. PHS has also continued to provide clinical advice, guidance, data and intelligence across many aspects of the pandemic, including for the COVID-19 vaccination programme. We provide a diverse range of data which not only helps decision makers, but has also helped the public understand what’s happening in our communities.

This approach has supported local and national government to make key policy decisions, such as how and when to safely remobilise health and other public services.

While the pandemic has demonstrated what can be achieved when we work with purpose and in partnership across the whole system, it has also widened many of the inequalities which threaten the health and wellbeing of communities across Scotland.  We know that working with and through local communities to identify the solutions is key to addressing these inequalities.  This was true before COVID-19, is true during it, and will be even more important beyond it. As a national agency we appreciate this will be challenging but we’re committed to doing it and to exploring new ways of working.

In PHS we want to build on and strengthen our partnerships, and we want to support and empower our staff to be effective collaborators. We’re actively engaging new and existing partners and challenging ourselves to do things differently, do different things, to make a difference.

So, while the last year has been a steep learning curve for many of us, we’re also seeing the best of our efforts rally to try and make life better for communities. The success we’ve achieved to date has collaboration at its heart, and that’s something we cannot lose sight of as we move towards a period of national recovery. It has also demonstrated why effective collaboration is a central skill for all of us who work to improve the health and wellbeing of communities.

Public Health Scotland are sponsoring the Collaborative Working award at UKPHR’s Innovation in Public Health Awards 2021. You can read more about the awards and nominate here. The closing date for entries is 26 February 2021 at 5pm.