It’s NHS Change Day so I’ve decided to dedicate this week’s blog to someone who exemplifies everything it stands for. She is, to use her own words, a disruptor and a radical who wants to bring about change. She’s a boat-rocker, a distinguished member of the Twitter glitterati and a networker par excellence; if anyone’s in any doubt, she is of course Gill Phillips.
It came as no surprise to me that Gill, aka @WhoseShoes, is at the heart of a Change Day campaign to improve the experience of women giving birth (and their families). In the last few weeks the #MatExp (maternity experience) hashtag has spread across Twitter like wildfire, disseminating nuggets of information and photos that capture the interactive, inclusive spirit of numerous sessions that have been taking place on the topic using Gill’s innovative Whose Shoes? approach.
This is a deceptively simple but very effective (I’ve seen it in action) board game that brings together different groups in an organisation – from senior management to hospital porters – enabling them to explore, through the concept of “walking in each other’s shoes”, the concerns, challenges and opportunities faced by all, from all perspectives. It drills down into what “personalisation” and “outcomes-based” approaches to health and social care really are, and what they involve.
Gill shares my love of language but is frustrated by the wastefulness of meaningless talk. She wants to do not endlessly bandy about phrases that aren’t properly understood – to make a difference, which is why she’s such a good fit with NHS Change Day.
She’s also an advocate of the School for Health and Care Radicals. Based in Gill’s home city of Coventry and backed by the NHS, this online learning programme is designed to support and connect those who “want to change the world of health and care” – and could be seen as Change Day’s sparky little sister.
“I don’t need the school now in the same way,” Gill tells me. “But I’ve been that person – the one who needs it, who wants to network, who’s not going to shut up – which is why it, and things like NHS Change Day, are so good”.
I’d agree she probably doesn’t need the school: prior to setting up Whose Shoes? she’d enjoyed a 30 year career in the public sector, and her name appears in not one but two of the Health Service Journal’s 2014 top 50 lists: the first for inspirational women, the second for innovators.
She certainly thinks outside the box, and there’s also a sense of urgency, almost anarchy, about Gill, which I’ve discovered stems from her brush with mortality. Twelve years ago she was diagnosed with breast cancer. As she says with customary frankness, “Life-threatening is the ultimate empowerment”.
In a guest blog on the Age Page website, she relates how, at the time, she told only very close friends and was proud that, despite undergoing nine months of surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, nobody knew other than those she chose to tell.
Gill also describes an incident at that time which, for me, sums up exactly who she is. It was a blustery day in early 2003 and she was standing on the touchline watching her youngest son play rugby.
“I remember I was talking to another mum, she writes. “She was a lovely woman, a friend but not a close friend – why on earth didn’t I tell her? And I remember the cartoon sketch of holding onto my wig as I struggled to pull my hood up, with a camera round my neck (as always) and a howling gale coming up from nowhere! You never know what’s going on in people’s lives and I am acutely aware of this”.
It’s all there. The desire to support her son and, for his sake, not to look different while doing so, hence the wig; the pride preventing her from telling her friend (and her self-questioning, why?); the humour she sees in what must have been, for so many reasons, a very difficult experience; the ever-present camera to record whatever, whoever, whenever to enhance the story later; and finally, crucially, the life lesson she took from it all.
It strikes me that more than almost anyone else I know, Gill Phillips is what she does. Just like her clever Whose Shoes? game, she makes connections. She’s genuinely interested in people – all people, the more and the more diverse, the better. She’s a boundary pusher, but in her own life there are no walls – everything she sees and hears, everyone she meets is of genuine interest because they add to her knowledge and network, and from this bank of resources come the means for her work.
One secret of Whose Shoes? success (it’s been used in over 300 organisations from the NHS and care providers to local authorities and universities) is that it’s built on real-life scenarios. The discussion cards that players collect describe incidents requiring action, with knock-on effects for the various members of staff involved. What started out as a facilitation tool (in itself necessitating hours of research and scores of different scenarios) has now become a more complex co-production tool.
Gill worked closely with obstetrician Florence Wilcox over four months to research and collate information, then write the bespoke cards for the #MatExp workshops. I attended one at Queen’s hospital, Romford. It gave a whole new meaning to inclusivity, bringing together as it did the hospital’s chief executive, mothers, radiographers, midwives, consultants and babies, as well as a graphic facilitator who created a vibrant visual record of the event.
Before #MatExp, Gill ventured into my sphere of interest, joining forces with Ken Howard to oversee over 25 dementia-specific Whose Shoes? events (Ken lives with the condition).
In fact, this is how we met. Not content with setting up the workshops in Kent, Gill created #dementiachallengers on Twitter to bring together like-minded people. Social media novice as I was at the time, I didn’t even know what a hashtag was, but Gill noticed my fledgling tweets and blogs, scooped me up and introduced me to the gang. (The rest, as they say, is history).
I can’t close without mentioning Gill’s Mum, who has just celebrated her 93rd birthday. Ever her daughter’s mother, she is naturally on Twitter (@Gills_Mum). And when, last year, she moved out of her home and into an assisted flat, the two of them kept the rest of us up to speed on developments via tweets and blogs.
One post in particular, written by Gill’s Mum and interspersed with comments and tweets from Gill and other Twitter friends, charts the moving day itself and encapsulates perfectly what the Whose Shoes? approach is all about. Do read it. It’s Gill’s Mum’s very own change day: at once a personal, poignant moment in two people’s lives yet also a treasure-trove – an online almanac – of evocative pictures, life-lessons and wisdom inviting you to comment and join in, as scores of us did.
We could all do a lot worse than to slip on Gill Phillip’s shoes for a moment or two, stop, look and listen to what others have to say, take a few steps back, mull over, digest and then do (or in my case, record). Make a change, make a difference. She certainly does.