Noshin Menzies, Senior Project Manager, shares her experiences of launching a Quality Improvement programme during COVID.
If you’d told me 4 months ago we would be where we are today with PERIPRem, I’d have wondered what planet you were from. This exciting, ambitious care bundle, the vision of two extraordinary neonatologists, was going to launch in April and change the way that perinatal care is delivered across the entire South West region. It was a seed reliant on collaboration. However, 2020 had other plans…
The fundamentals of PERIPRem – nurturing a regional clinical community dedicated to improving outcomes for our most vulnerable babies and working side by side with women and their families – were, in an instant, stopped in their tracks.
Pre-COVID, I had been lucky enough to attend the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology’s “Let’s Talk about Race” event for International Women’s Day. The stories I heard further cemented the commitment we had to reducing inequalities. We could not deliver a perinatal quality improvement project without ensuring that we were actively listening – and considering how to chip away at the barriers that result in Black and Minority Ethnic women being 5 times more likely to die in childbirth and their children to experience poorer outcomes. This was even before we knew the increased risk of COVID to people of colour and the raised chance of preterm labour for those women unfortunate enough to contract the virus whilst pregnant.
Just as we finalised plans for launch, and to get out into the communities and find every opportunity to involve those who lives are imprinted by the experience of preterm birth, COVID hit. Our PERIPRem teams were now on the battle lines, and we were nestled behind our laptop screens, shell shocked. Our ability to be agile and adapt to novel ways of working mattered now more than ever.
I’ll admit, I was sceptical how we could launch what was still a seedling of a programme to twelve units across the whole of the South West, when we were unable to leave our kitchens, let alone realise our plans to provide fertile ground for the creation of a regional PERIPRem clinical community. Without a physical launch, how could we provide space for those small but mighty moments, that when cultivated, have more of an impact than any toolkit or presentation?
I often struggle when I have to describe QI; in my experience it is much bigger than a framework or a process by which you can input your problem and wait for gold-standard results. For me, QI has its foundations in the people, the team and the culture. It is the introductions to new faces, teams huddled together around meeting tables, clinicians whispering to colleagues they had not seen for years and the camaraderie brewed alongside the substandard coffee. We grow highly functioning teams, and the most exciting part of any QI project, on these blocks. It was boom or bust but I needn’t have worried.
We have formed strong bonds as a PERIPRem team; we have even managed a team social. My treasured counterpart in the South West AHSN and I have never met, we joke that we do not know what each other look like from the shoulders down. We have bonded over the many cameos from the PERIPRem teams’ children – or Assistant QI Coaches as they are now known.
Most importantly, the PERIPRem perinatal teams have flourished. Whilst in the pressure cooker of the pandemic, we gave space and time to focus on delivering patient care – when they got a handle on what it meant for them as clinicians, they came back raring to go. We have digitised all of our resources and are now holding webinars on each of the bundle elements – they are so well attended we cannot fit on a screen!
People have pushed through discomfort to record themselves sharing the clinical fundamentals and to provide the presence (all be it through a screen) we all miss. We are exploring new ways to engage with the women we were so keen to meet and listen to, and we are forever indebted to our patient representatives who are now pillars of our PERIPRem team.
The takeaway message from that tired trope of “these unprecedented times” is that we are stronger than we think. At the end of each exhausting day, when we have had our fill of fighting for bandwidth with Xboxing teenagers, with tired mouths from calmly saying, “you’re on mute”, we have been and will continue to be successful. More significantly, we have supported frazzled teammates, butted horns and laughed until we cried.
There is a sense of freedom this way of working has granted us. Whilst before, there was a tendency to stick to the tried and tested method of engaging and working with our clinical communities, COVID allowed us to think again. We used technology to enable hospital teams scattered across the entire southwest to meaningfully engage in PERIPRem without ever having to leave their wards. I was worried connecting through screens and keyboards would reinforce the distance between us all, but I am surprised to realise that it has in fact accelerated relationships and in turn progress.
Having to rely on the written word in email has meant that tone and intonation have been more carefully considered and the periods of chat offered through video calls means each sentence really counts. Of more significance, is a flattening of the hierarchy within our team. Each person no matter what their seniority is vital in keeping the PERIPRem wheel turning – be it because they know how to record a MS Teams meeting, or because they have the complex clinical knowledge of a perinatal intervention. It is not that we did not appreciate this before, but the situation forced us to see beyond the limitations of a job description.
I have reflected on whether, upon return to ‘normality’, if we as a team will revert to the pre-COVID way of working. Whilst I would like to think there would be a time when we are able to sit in offices and meet with units, I do not think that is the whole question. I can honestly say I hope we do not – I do not want to forget our swift response to the restrictions placed on us, or our unwavering faith in our ability to make improvements.
I believe that we have fundamentally changed the way we will approach projects such as this in the future. We are braver in our ways of facilitating community, we have lived experience of delivering change programmes utilising technology rather than travel and we know that when needed, we can free ourselves of the legacy of traditional and more restrictive ways of working.