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Notes from the field of public involvement

Wednesday, 16 March 2005

Now we know the answer to “what next?” for Patients Forums

It wasn't long in coming. Barely a week after we posed the question "what next for public involvement and patients forums?" the Department of Health obliged with a big part of the answer - abolish (sorry, merge) half of the PPIFs in order to support the remaining ones better. There is an echo here of "we have to cut back the train service so the trains left running can keep to the timetable better".

The announcement by Rosie Winterton means it's to be RIP for Patients Forums in all NHS bodies except PCTs. A sentence of execution, though with no hint of the timescale for this upheaval which may cause a degree of pandemonium amongst members of Ambulance Trust, Specialist Trust, NHS Trust and Mental Health Trust - not to mention Foundation Trust - PPI Forums. It would be understandable, after all that has happened (and not happened) since the PPIFs were established at the end of 2003, if many Forum members threw in the towel. We hope they won't, but Government needs to move quickly to settle everyone into the new structure based on PCT Forums before the volunteers walk away.

The NHS Appointments Commission again comes to the fore as the appointing body for the mandatory chairs which PCT Forums will have - that's in addition to the AC's role appointing all the Forum members. It'll be a challenge. We think these PCT Forum chairs must be paid, given the level of responsibility and skills they will be required to exercise in this public appointment role.

Are we moving towards having bodies that begin to resemble CHCs, with a proper staffing structure for each PCT Forum not be far off? The announcement of "fewer, larger contracts with the independent sector to provide staff support to forums" implies that, but keeping the Forum Support Organisation model undermines it. The only independent research on Forum support mechanisms - Christine Hogg's expert survey paper - found no support for continuing with the FSO model to support Forums.

Casual observers may applaud the merger announcement as an admission that a post-CHC "failed state" situation is at least being dealt with. How it reads to the local PPIF volunteers trying to do their best with inadequate support is another matter entirely. Many of them probably won't even know their fate until they read it in the newspapers.

Announcement on Department of Health web site

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