Sound Doctor: Empowering patients through digital media

An interview with Rosie Runciman

Monday, October 12, 2015

  • The Sound Doctor is a new way of learning about long-term conditions that aims to put people in control of their health
  • Their library of over 250 films covers five conditions, including over 65 films on COPD
  • Films range from diagnosis advice and information on inhaler technique, to breathing techniques and coping with an exacerbation.

How did the Sound Doctor come about?

Rosie Runciman: In 2011 we created the Sound Doctor because we identified a real need for better patient information about long-term conditions. The era of the leaflet seemed to have disappeared, but whilst we were all using film and audio in a really sophisticated way in other parts of our lives, none of us seemed to be using it to any great effect in health.

So what was is your background?

Rosie: Dominic Arkwright and I set up the company together. Our background is in the BBC and we both worked there for over 20 years. Dominic was a reporter on the Today programme and presented two discussion programmes called Off Page and The Call. He was also a Newsnight reporter from time to time. I worked on Today, Newsnight, Radio 5 Live, and The World Service, where I was Editor of a programme called Newshour.

This gave us the relevant experience and expertise to create accessible, interesting content, understandable to a large section of the population.

You also produce a weekly radio programme for the NHS – can you tell me a bit more?

Rosie: Health Today is a radio programme commissioned by NHS England. As with all the content we produce at the Sound Doctor, it aims to get people to engage with their health in a different way. It’s a magazine programme and has music and celebrities talking about various aspects of health. 

There is a ‘What I do in the NHS’ slot which features all kinds of different jobs performed by some of the unsung heroes of the organisation. The programme is available on NHS Choices and Age UK’s digital radio channel, The Wireless. 

The idea is that the films take you on a journey through life with your condition, all the way from diagnosis to potential complications.

How did you get started?

Rosie: We talked to large numbers of health professionals, patients and the Department of Health about whether producing a set of films targeted towards patients with long-term conditions was going to be of interest. As self-management was forcing itself to the front of the health agenda, we had a very enthusiastic response from those we talked to, almost all of whom said it was exactly the sort of thing they were looking for. 

How did you go about making these films?

Rosie: We have always worked with at least one of the leading charities for each condition, as well as talking to a number of the top specialists, often people who devise the NICE guidelines.

Having consulted with a number of experts from the British Lung Foundation and Diabetes UK, we created 65 films on diabetes and 65 films on COPD over the first year. We've since made films about dementia, back pain and weight management.

How are the films distributed?

Rosie: Clinical Commissioning Groups usually provide access to the Sound Doctor for their entire population base. This means films can be accessed in libraries and leisure centres, and distributed in pharmacies as well as in GP practices.

How do the patients with long-term conditions find out about it? 

Rosie: GPs, practice nurses, community health professionals and pharmacists usually give people an ‘information prescription’. This consists of a brochure explaining what the Sound Doctor is and how it can help. We created them with input from focus groups of patients and clinicians to ensure that extra explanations wouldn’t be needed from very busy health professionals.

All people have to do is email and say which conditions they would like to access and which GP practice they attend. They will then be sent login details for the site which they can use straight away provided their CCG has licenced the Sound Doctor for the area.

What kind of format are the films in?

Rosie: They're like news pieces - between three and five minutes in length and usually involve about six interviewees in each film, both experts and patients. Increasingly we use animation too, and there are action points and goal setting. 

So you’ve made 65 of these films on COPD alone – can you tell us a bit more?

Rosie: The idea is that the films take you on a journey through life with your condition, all the way from diagnosis to potential complications. As a patient you may want very different information at the point of diagnosis than you do a few years later. 

When you are newly diagnosed, you are most interested in basic information about the condition and what it means to self-manage. Inhaler technique films, for example, can save Practice Nurses hours of repeated information and you can practice at home as many times as you like. However, we know from patient evaluations that even though you've had a condition for many years, there can be information you didn't know before.     

There is no clear way to get in touch with everybody in the UK who might be interested in respiratory health – and that’s why Respiratory Futures is so valuable in spreading the word

How has the Sound Doctor it been taken up?

Rosie: The Sound Doctor is being used in nine CCGs at the moment, and from the patient evaluations previously mentioned, we know it is extremely popular. 99% would recommend it to family and friends.

The Sound Doctor was also introduced into a programme designed to prevent hospital admissions for people with COPD in the Wirral. It was aimed at patients in the high risk exacerbation group who are most likely to be admitted to hospital. The PACE study (Preventing Admissions for COPD Exacerbations) ran in the seven practices of the Wirral Alliance CCG and has shown significant reductions in the number of hospital admissions and associated costs. 

How did you come to choose those five conditions, originally?

Rosie: We chose to start with Diabetes and COPD because they are two of the biggest headaches for the NHS. Cardiovascular disease was the one we’d planned to focus on next but then we were asked to create resources on back pain management, weight management and dementia by three different CCGs. We are now starting work on CVD.

Have you faced any challenges along the way, and if so, how do you approach those?

Rosie: Getting the word out to CCGs about The Sound Doctor has been very hard as there are rarely consistent central points of communication. We try to meet as many people as we can, but when you’re a small company you can’t realistically go and see 208 different CCGs. There is no clear way to get in touch with everybody in the UK who might be interested in respiratory health – and that’s why Respiratory Futures is so valuable in spreading the word to GP practices, commissioners and all those interested in respiratory conditions.

How would you like to see the project develop?

Rosie: I would like all CCGs to use the Sound Doctor COPD films so that everybody with COPD has the opportunity to benefit from that vast wealth of information. This gives patients 24/7 access to national and international experts and patients who know so much about the condition.

Do you have any messages for respiratory healthcare professionals?

Rosie: With shrinking budgets and larger numbers of people requiring help, it is not possible to give the same face-to-face service as before, however our information can reduce the need for this contact. As we change our approach, and start to use digital information like this which is easy to access and understand, it can make a real difference to people’s attitudes and helping them to get the best out of life. 

Thanks very much Rosie, and good luck.

Contact details, downloads and information on the Sound Doctor can be found here.