Holding hands Image credit pixabay/Free_PhotosWestern Sussex hospitals is one of the leading trusts in the country. It received an outstanding categorisation in April 2016. An example of a digital initiative it has pioneered is Family Assist. Developed under the joint working partnership of Western Sussex Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, Sussex Community NHS Foundation Trust and West Sussex County Council, Family Assist provides an information resource for parents, and their extended circle both during and after pregnancy.

The idea was inspired by Maternity Assist, a program developed by Liverpool Women’s NHS Foundation Trust. Maternity Assist provides an online platform to deliver information to pregnant women.

Launched in 2017, Family Assist leverages Oracle Service Cloud. It delivers a self service portal that allows families expecting a baby to ask questions and seek advice both during maternity and as their child grows. Enterprise Times spoke to Kelly Pierce, Consultant Midwife in Public Health (Secondment) at West Sussex County Council at Oracle OpenWorld London.

Kelly Pierce, Consultant Midwife in Public Health (Secondment). Healthy Child Programme Lead at West Sussex County Council (Image credit Linkedin)
Kelly Pierce, Consultant Midwife in Public Health (Secondment). Healthy Child Programme Lead at West Sussex County Council

The portal has recently had two successes that Pierce is proud of. Pierce stated: “Family Assist, was accredited to NHS Digitals, Apps and Libraries Portal, which is a really rigorous process to enter into that library. We are the only portal for families from pre-birth up to 19  years, and 25 for families supporting young people with SEND.. Family Assist was (also) awarded local government new paperless award for best customer experience.“

The awards are recognition of the work that the team has done but what difference has it made to the healthcare team in West Sussex?

Has it been successful?

It is just over a year since the project was launched I asked Pierce whether they had evaluated the program so far?

We’ve got some quite interesting stuff, we’ve looked at usage, we signed up roughly around 55% to 60% of mums in West Sussex. Which, for year one, is pretty good. The idea is that the mum can sign up her friends and family, her community. We know that the importance of engaging the mother’s friends and family is absolutely essential if you’re looking at behaviour change models, within public health services.”

She highlighted two areas where Family Assist has made a difference.

“What we know is if someone is trying to quit smoking, they’re most likely to listen to friends and family, rather than professionals. Six women gave up smoking directly as a result of just using family system not any other incentive. Which, I think, is absolutely amazing.”

Highlighting domestic abuse

The second was around the domestic abuse. Pierce continued: “We also know our hits for the website the top ten answers of what people are looking at. Domestic abuse and violence normally features within the top ten. For me, that’s absolutely essential, as far as safeguarding children. That both women and men have an access to safeguarding information around abuse and exploitation and violence. That they’re able to have another channel to seek that advice and support, should that be needed.”

That statistic is important because it is the kind of conversation that is rarely raised in person. While the number of people investigating it is high and in itself worrying, that it is being look at in the first place is important. It is one of the reasons that the portal is open to a wider circle than just the immediate parents.

Pierce continued: “When we look at why children die, and we look at what’s called serious case reviews, which take place around the country when a child has come to harm, what we do notice is that quite often, those children are in the care of somebody other than their primary caregiver.

“We want to try to ensure that parental information and guidance around looking after their children is absolutely there, regardless of whether or not, the parents are together.”

Solving issues

Not only has the system been able to offer the advice in real time to parents there was another insight for Pierce. What Service Cloud has enabled them to do now is to track when people are accessing this information. She continued:

“In the summer months, we saw a peak in people searching for information on coping with a crying baby. That was really interesting, because it comes around the time of some key sporting events. We can’t underestimate the power of seasonal sporting events, a bit of alcohol, parental conflicts tend to rise at those times. Then, include a crying baby equation into all of that, it can be really challenging for families.”

This has led to a joint initiative with the NSPCC to send an email at certain times of the year to help ensure that the right information is in front of people at the right time.

Freeing up frontline time

To date it has been difficult for Pierce to analysis the impact to the midwife’s work load in the Trust. Anecdotally, she knows that Family Assist is freeing up frontline clinicians time. Pierce was a midwife herself and knows that even once she had finished her days work there were still calls to be answered.

“As a midwife myself, when I was working out in the community, I would get back from visiting lots of people and my phone would be full of messages and missed calls. Quite often, when I chased those back up, they were worried well concerns.”

According to Pierce they are things like:

  • I’m going on holiday, what’s the flying regulations around pregnancy?“.
  • You mentioned about a helpline around smoking. What was that again?”

The portal is enabling people to quickly find the information they would have sought from the midwife. Piece continued: “Those types of things take up lots of time for frontline clinicians. Lots of that has now stopped.”

As the portal is delivered by the health service it is a trusted source of information. While it is unclear how much work time is freed up, Pierce believes it has improved the work life balance. That is something that is important and other trusts will pay attention to. As the Guardian reported in September, there is a chronic shortage of midwives. “Almost 3,000 midwives ended their careers in England last year, and only 2,000 came out of university to replace them.” Family assist may be one step in helping to reduce turnover.

Is it making a difference? Pierce concluded: “Definitely, what people are saying is that this is freeing up frontline clinicians time. To ensure that the most vulnerable families can have access to more face to face contact. We really are seeing, in West Sussex, that this absolutely compliments our universal services.”

A technology partner that was engaged and embedded

One of the last questions Enterprise Times asked Pierce was about the Oracle impact on the project. Pierce sees Family Assist as a unique project, the first of its kind. It was also the first that Oracle had done in this space according to Pierce. She felt that it was not just a successfully delivered technology project. She commented: “There was a real shared philosophy and empathy behind what we were trying to do. When we started talking about what it was, people just clicked with it, and said, ‘You know what? It makes sense.’ Oracle did completely come on that journey with us.”

While that is unusual for a technology implementation, maternity care affects every individual and it seems that Oracle consultants are no exception. Certainly, Pierce is happy with the outcome. What are the next steps?

There are still improvements planned for Family Assist but that is not the only thing on which Pierce has her eyes set. She is now working within the local Authority rather than the NHS Trust on secondment.

She commented: “Discussions are taking place in the local authority environment (on where) we can view service cloud. I keep seeing other systems, and think, that could actually just sit on Family Assist. …  We’re really looking at where we can make some efficiencies around some of the digital platforms that we have, across the council, to see if we can align a lot more services.”

Enterprise Times: What does this mean

Family Assist is now available for other NHS Trusts to select and use from the NHS Digital Library. It is one of many solutions that Oracle can offer for Health Authorities. It seems likely that West Sussex County Council may add more service offerings within Oracle Service Cloud in the near future.

Family Assist is not just the story of a successful implementation but one that has made a real difference both to the lives of its end customers, the parents and their children but also to the midwives in the area. It is not the most sophisticated portal. However, it is serving a need directly and delivering benefits that, while not easily be quantified, are there to see.

If other trusts also look to adopt the solution it will be interesting to see how it is deployed and whether it becomes more a national than local initiative. It may already be helping to solve local issues currently in West Sussex but the shortage of midwives is a national problem.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here