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  • August 3, 2022
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Discussing the routes into digital health leadership with Faye Sefton, Digital Project Manager (Communications and Engagement) at NHS Cheshire and Merseyside.


Can you start by telling us where you work, and what your current role is?

Yes of course, so I currently work for the Cheshire and Merseyside integrated care system or “ICS”, which is responsible for looking after and delivering all the health and care services across the nine local authority areas or “Places” that make up our footprint, and the ICS is made up of two parts. Firstly, the Integrated Care Board or “ICB” that’s known as “NHS Cheshire and Merseyside”, who I’m employed by, which is responsible for developing a plan for meeting the health needs of the rich diversity of people who make up our population of 2.7m, managing the NHS budget, and arranging for the provision of health services in the ICS area. Then secondly there’s the Integrated Care Partnership or “ICP”, which is known as the “Cheshire and Merseyside Health and Care Partnership” that brings together a broad alliance of partners, including NHS, local authority, and voluntary, community, faith and social enterprise organisations. In order to collectively assess the health, public health, and social care needs of Cheshire and Merseyside residents and produce a strategy to address them, with the aim of helping to improve people’s health, care outcomes and experiences.

And my role is unique because as well as leading on the ICS’s Robotic Process Automation or “RPA” project, I also lead on Communications and Engagement for the ICS’s Digital Programme and the projects and programmes within its portfolio. It’s a role that gives me a diverse perspective, because on one hand I’m working with a range of ICS organisations to help them implement a software technology that uses digital workers (or robots) to perform and automate high-volume repetitive tasks, to free up time for their clinical and/or non-clinical workforces, to for example support better management of patient demands. Whereas on the other hand I’m working with a variety of digital project and programme teams to help them communicate to key stakeholders how they’re making a difference through the use of digital technology and data. To enable our health and care workforce to deliver safer, more effective, and efficient care, empower our population to take increased control and ownership of their health and wellbeing, and to plan the future of joined up, effective services that address the needs of the whole population and reduce inequalities in provision. 

Please can you tell us about how your career journeys led you to your current role?

I’ve always been very creative and originally wanted to become a graphic designer, so I went to college where I studied for a BTEC National Diploma in art and design, and after achieving a triple distinction I applied to go to the University of Chester. Originally starting a degree in advertising and graphic design, before altering it to a full advertising degree, after finding that I enjoyed undertaking the design, planning, and execution of a complete integrated marketing and communications strategy, more than the technical knowledge, context, and theory of graphic design. Then after graduating in 2013 as a valedictorian with a first-class honours degree, I started my first job working in a small in-house marketing team for a recruitment company. In a role where I put my creative abilities to use and led on a rebranding project, which included creating a logo, brand guidelines, and launching a responsive website for a specialist recruitment consultancy firm that my company had acquired. Leading on from this I worked at a marketing and video production company, where I co-ordinated campaigns for a wide-range of clients, including an egg-donation company.

It was working with this client and supporting them in attracting new egg-donors, who could make a hugely meaningful and life-changing impact to individuals who were unable to have children, that helped me to realise that I wanted to utilise my skills to make a positive difference to others, which led me to embark on my career in the NHS. My first role was for a mental health trust where I was asked to lead on the design and implementation of three brand new websites in the space of ten months. The first aimed at sharing innovation and best practice to help staff and other organisations improve the quality of their services, the second to help a local improving access to psychological therapies or “IAPT” service to streamline its referral process, and the third to promote free suicide-prevention training which was made accessible to all, with the aim of improving support for those contemplating suicide. Following on from this role, I worked for what was then known as a clinical commissioning group or “CCG” which at the time were responsible for planning and buying, or ‘commissioning’, the majority of local health services that residents in a certain footprint needed.

And it was in this role, after recognising the impact that the website work in my previous role had on staff, patients, and members of the public, as well as just how much I’d enjoyed working on these projects, that I decided to self-fund my PRINCE 2 Foundation and Practitioner certifications outside of work. Certifications which I believe helped me to get a promotion as a Digital Communications Manager at what was then known as the Cheshire and Merseyside sustainability and transformation partnership or “STP” before it became an ICS. In a role that was split between assisting the Digital Programme team (who I now work for) and the Imaging and Pathology Networks with their communications and engagement needs, as well as the STP with its strategic communications. However, four months after starting this role the COVID-19 pandemic hit and my role drastically changed, as my primary focus became supporting the response to the crisis, which included working with my immediate team and manager at the time to aid the development of a digital campaign to address vaccine hesitancy amongst our ethnic minority communities. This campaign helped to drive behaviour change and to massively increase vaccine uptake, for which it went onto win numerous awards. Following this, the Digital Programme advertised a role split between communications and engagement and project management and given my skillset and experience I decided to apply, and the rest is history as they say as I got the job and I’ve now been in this role for just over a year. 

Can you share with us what direction you want to take your career in moving forwards?

One of the challenges that I’ve come across coming from a predominantly communications and engagement background is that there’s often not a defined career pathway for digital, data and technology or “DDaT” roles within health and care settings. And after speaking with colleagues working at different levels across health and care settings, I’ve come to realise that this is true regardless of what background individuals are coming from, whether that be for example clinical, technical, or a non-clinical corporate services background such as communications, HR, or finance. That said, this gap is something that has been recognised and I believe the NHS Transformation Directorate team are looking to address this via their “Building a Digital Ready Workforce” programme, which aims to deliver a standardised job role and career framework by April 2024, to support broad and inclusive pathways that’ll help to guide future digital leaders and future talent. But in the interim, this means that individuals wanting to progress their DDaT careers in health and care will have to carve their own pathways, by firstly examining their strengths and skills, and thinking about what it is that really motivates them to get out of bed in the morning, so to speak.

When I apply this to myself and I think about my skills and experience in communications and engagement and project management, and how I want to develop my career in a role where I’m able to utilise my skills and experience to support digitally focused projects and programmes that help to improve health and care services, particular for staff, patients, and members of the public. I think the direction I’m interested in for my career moving forward is Digital Change Management. As this role involves developing change management plans, defining and shaping change initiatives, integrating change management into digital workstreams, and ensuring successful delivery and adoption of large-scale digitally enabled change, that can make a real difference for a wide variety of stakeholders. And to explore this role further, and the steps I need to take to steer my career in this direction, in the first instance I’ve connected with colleagues in change management roles to find out more about what their roles entail, to get their advice and guidance on change management networks, training courses, and shadowing opportunities that maybe available to me.

Who if anyone inspires you when you think about your career journey moving forward?

I’d say my mum is someone who continually inspires me when I think about my career journey moving forward, as she’s incredibly hard working, and she’s always taught me that you can do anything you want to if you put your mind to it. Something that she’s demonstrated through completing both her master’s degree and her PhD whilst working and raising three children! She’s also incredibly passionate, like I am, in using her skills and experience to make a positive difference for health and care staff and the patients that they serve. For example, in her clinical role at Alder Hey Children’s NHS FT she recognised the potential for using electronic hand-held devices instead of paper to record patients’ vital signs such as heart rate, blood pressure, and temperature. As in paediatric settings vital signs and observations are used by clinicians to assess a child’s clinical status, and they do this by using one of five age-appropriate Paediatric Early Warning Score or “PEWS” charts as a guide to support the early identification of patients at risk of clinical deterioration.

However, because these five PEWS charts use different score metrics which alter significantly depending on a child’s age, this creates an element of risk, and so my mum led the first research study of its kind in the UK called the Dynamic Electronic Tracking and Escalation or “DETECT” study. A study based around developing an early-warning system for children, that uses digital devices that automatically load the correct age-specific PEWS risk model associated with the patient’s date of birth, and once patient vitals are recorded onto the device, it automatically categorises the risk of the patient developing serious illness into low, medium, high, or critical. And these devices also send automated alerts about the sickest children and concerns for escalation direct to the clinical team, without the nurse leaving the patient’s bedside. Additionally, laboratory results can also be sent to the devices to help to identify when a child might have sepsis, which is a serious illness associated with an overwhelming response to infection. All of which is not only beneficial for patients and their families by targeting treatment earlier and reducing their stay in hospital, but also in terms of reducing deterioration that could result in life-altering complications and/or the need for life-long care. Both of which could impact on the patient’s quality of life and could also mean that they’d be utilising NHS services more so than if they’d not gone through a deterioration that had impacted on the future of their health and care, so reducing clinical deterioration also helps to support cost-efficiencies for the NHS.

So, I’m really in awe of my mum, and all that she’s achieved in terms of her education, and her career, and the legacy I feel she’ll leave behind her that’ll continue to support our health and care workforce and the patients they serve, long after she eventually retires! 

Looking back what have been the key highlights for you in your career to date?

I think one of my career highlights to date has to be when I helped the improving access to psychological therapies service “Talk Liverpool” to redesign its website. As the old website let anyone submit a referral form, whether they were eligible for the service or not, and often because of the large number of referrals received the admin team couldn’t respond to those who weren’t eligible for several weeks, which was creating more work for the team and delaying those seeking help in getting it. That said when re-designing the website, to streamline Talk Liverpool’s referral process, we created an in-built pre-referral questionnaire which helped to automatically signpost those who weren’t eligible or likely to benefit from the service to more appropriate services, which helped to improve access rates. Particularly for more vulnerable population groups within our society, such as travellers and the homeless, who don’t have a fixed home address to register with their local GP, both of which are elements that usually support the pathway to refer into an IAPT service. As within a six-month period from the website launch in August 2017 to January 2018 online referrals increased by 72% and the service then went on to hit its 50% recovery targets for two months on the run, for the first time in Liverpool in ten years. Highlighting how the new website helped to better communicate the services offered by Talk Liverpool and improve access rates for those who’d benefit from them.

Another highlight has to be developing a website and social media channels for the Zero Suicide Alliance, in order to improve support for people contemplating suicide, by raising awareness of and promoting free suicide prevention training which was made accessible to all. As the website development, social media channels, and scheduling of posts had to be completed in an extremely tight three-week turnaround for the campaign launch, which was in the houses of parliament, and to add to the pressure Jeremy Hunt who was the health secretary at the time was in attendance. However, despite the pressure the launch was a huge success with 11 million people reached through a Thunderclap campaign, that Everton Football club and a number of senior MPs signed up to. Additionally, within the first three months of the launch almost 3,000 people had completed the suicide prevention training course, equipping them with the life-saving skills to identify, understand and help someone who may be experiencing suicidal thoughts. And there’s a clear golden thread that runs through these career highlights, as in both examples digital technology was used to create a positive difference, through supporting better health and care outcomes for patients and members of the public, and in turn, helping to reduce pressures on our health and care workforce too. 

What advice would you give to someone looking to start their career in digital health?

My advice for anyone looking to start their career in digital health, would be to examine their strengths and skills and to think about what their interests, motivations and values are, and what it is they want from their career, as this will help them to research the different areas within digital, data, and technology, and the job roles that’d be a good fit for them. Two of the things I do when researching job roles of interest are to firstly read live job descriptions of roles, as this will give you an idea of the essential and desirable experience, qualifications, skills, knowledge, and competencies for various roles, which you can use to identify gaps that you may have, to support your career development. Secondly, once I have a better idea of the roles that I’m interested in I’ll connect with individuals in these roles on LinkedIn, so I can learn more about the different career pathways that others have taken into roles of interest, which you’ll be able to see by looking at the roles they’ve done in the past and the courses they’ve taken. I’ve also reached out to those I’ve connected with, to ask them if they’d recommend courses they’ve done, and to ask for advice and guidance too, as throughout my career I’ve found having a mentor in a role you’re aspiring towards is really helpful.

Additionally, I’ve set up a Twitter profile that I mainly use to post about the work I’m doing, DDaT courses or events I’m attending, or books that I’m reading, and I’ve found this to be extremely beneficial, because as a result of the content I’m posting my feed is tailored around digital communications and project management content I’d be interested in. For example, a few months ago I found through my feed a lady who works in a communications and engagement role within the NHS, who’d applied for and was successful in securing a place on a digital postgraduate course that I was interested in, but which I’d thought was previously out of my scope because in the past it’s attracted candidates from clinical or technical backgrounds who are already in quite senior roles. Whereas I now know that the course has been opened up to those from a variety of different backgrounds and levels, and that it’s aimed at both aspiring leaders and those with current digital leadership responsibilities, who are committed to advancing transformational digital change across their organisations and systems, and exemplifying the professionalisation of digital health over time.

Finally, my last piece of advice would be to attend digital health conferences and events, such as Digital Health Summer Schools, HETT which stands for Health Excellence Through Technology, and Digital Health Rewired. As firstly they’ll enable you to network with current and aspiring digital leaders, and to build a network of contacts that will be able to offer advice, guidance, and support to help you on your career journey. And secondly, it’ll give you a chance to hear from a wide range of stakeholders including policymakers, digital leaders, innovators, and healthcare suppliers about the latest challenges facing those in DDaT roles, and the latest technologies and innovations helping to tackle these pain points, with best practice case-studies and examples. All of which will help you to get different perspectives that’ll support you in your role and assist you in thinking about the skills that you may want to build on to help you in your career development moving forward. Building on this, I’d also say horizon scanning, which involves considering how emerging trends and developments might potentially affect current policy and practice, is equally important. As it’s essential to be able to adopt split-screen thinking, with real time adaption to the urgent here and now demands on one side and longer-term strategizing for the future on the other.

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