Documentaries about the NHS are more important now than they've ever been

Last month, we celebrated a significant milestone at St George's Hospital, as Channel 4 broadcast the 100th episode of '24 Hours in A&E' filmed at the Trust.

Documentaries about the NHS serve a greater good, if handled with care - argues Chris Rolfe
Documentaries about the NHS serve a greater good, if handled with care - argues Chris Rolfe

I have a long relationship with the programme, having started and championed the first ever series back in 2011 at King’s College Hospital (where I was then head of communications).

It has been a part of my career for over seven years now and, whilst in later years my direct involvement has been minimal (we have an excellent media manager at St George’s), it remains a pretty permanent fixture in my working life; and in such a positive way.

Documentaries about the NHS vary in quality, but UK viewers are never short of choice when it comes to watching them; most weeks you will find something on, which shows that i) the public want to watch programmes about their ‘national religion’ and ii) production companies and broadcasters know this, and are constantly looking at ways of making more, and weaving them into the schedules.

On balance, I believe this is a positive thing.

As a communications professional working in the NHS, it is incredibly rewarding to take a documentary all the way from an initial idea to a finished product that, in many cases, people sit down to watch with their dinner and say ‘that was alright’; oblivious to the phenomenal amount of work involved.

Documentaries can be extremely challenging to work on, for a number of reasons – not least the nagging concern that the production company you’re linked with won’t do the work of your teams justice.

Or that they create a programme that takes debate around the issue in question backwards, rather than forward.

However, I am pleased to say that, in the majority of cases, all the hard work pays off – and you (the communications professional) get to play a big part in bringing the work of your hospital – and the brilliant clinicians who work in the NHS - to a massive audience.

Of course, it’s a big responsibility, and one that we all in NHS communications take very seriously.

The same production company (The Garden) has made every series of 24 Hours in A&E. They get it, understand the privilege of access they’ve been granted, but also (crucially) know when to step away or not push too hard.

Not every production company has the same resources (a team of 200 are involved in each series of 24 Hours), but the thing that puts communications people off, or makes us worry, is when production companies sometimes push too hard for a particular scene to be included, or say ‘that’s what the channel wants’.

Trust is such an important part of the production company/hospital relationship and, whilst we don’t expect them to ‘go native’, it is important they understand where our staff are coming from, and the pressures on them.

Our staff are the ones who are going to be on TV after all, and putting their professional reputations on the line.

There have been a number of excellent documentaries about the NHS, and long may this continue.

‘Hospital’ was excellent, as was ‘Ambulance’ – and the new BBC2 documentary, ‘Surgeons: At the Edge of Life’, was also fascinating.

I say this as a maxillofacial patient myself, a service which featured in one of the programmes, so it has extra resonance.

‘24 Hours in A&E’ was, I believe, ground-breaking for its time, and the fact it has reached 100 episodes – at its second home – speaks volumes for its ability to endure and remain relevant.

Long may this continue.

Chris Rolfe is associate director of communications at St George’s University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust

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