The editor of The Probe magazine recently interviewed Simplyhealth’s Chief Customer Officer Kate Thornton, to talk about what makes Simplyhealth’s corporate and social commitments so unique…
First of all, tell me about your role at Simplyhealth...
I joined Simplyhealth 14 months ago as the first-ever Chief Customer Officer, with a purpose to ensure the company thinks about our customers in everything we do. We’re very serious about the impact that we have on our colleagues, our customers and our communities, so it’s a fantastic role to have. I’ve heard that charitable giving is woven into the fabric of the company at every level…
In what ways do staff partake in worthy causes?
We are all here because we’re passionate about helping people gain access to healthcare. We recently had all 1,300 of our employees attend an event in Andover, where we shared with them stories from some of the charities that we’ve helped, and enabling them to see what a difference it makes when we do our jobs well. We help our customers, we help grow the business, and at the same time people are able to spend up to three-days a year volunteering for charities that they feel passionately about. We operate a Give As You Earn scheme (GAYE), so we’ll match people’s donations up to £50 a month; if you want to go and raise money for a charity as a Simplyhealth colleague, then we will match your funding up to £500, so we can help staff make the most of their contributions towards things they care about. In December, we ran a poll so colleagues could choose what charity we should give the proceeds of a Christmas initiative to.
Given that there are so many people in need, how do you decide on what projects to embrace?
When we choose the organisations that we support as a company, we’re really looking at two criteria. We’ve worked for over 146 years to help people access routine and preventative healthcare so, firstly, we look for charities that sit within that space. Recently we’ve been working around issues with ability – both mental and physical, which includes dental (because that’s an important part of our business), the ageing population where isolation can have a huge impact on older people’s health, and issues around carers, where they’re typically prioritising other people’s health over their own.
The second thing we look at is impact. We ask anybody who is asking for funding to tell us what our funding is specifically going to help facilitate, what the impact measures are and what it’s going to drive. That way, we always know and are able to track and monitor the impact of what we are doing, which is really important to us.
How do you think charities can go about restoring people’s trust after scandals in recent times?
I think there are lots of examples in all sorts of sectors, of stories that impact trust. Having said that there is also fantastic work going on all around us too, and most charitable organisations do a phenomenal job helping people achieve outcomes that they could never have achieved without them. We certainly haven’t seen amongst our colleagues any sign that there is less inclination to support charities… For us, it is about taking time to carefully pick the charities that we work with, getting to know and understand them specifically, and what our funding is going towards.
We stay closely connected with charities to make sure that the projects we’re funding are having the impact that we want them to, and when you see the impact – on individuals, children, elderly people and people with all sorts of health issues – it is so worthwhile. If you can tell people about these outcomes then I think that really helps build trust and belief.
How significant has the impact of austerity been on people’s oral health?
It’s a complicated issue, isn’t it? Whether its austerity, or whatever else it might be, the amount of money that people have does have a link in some cases to their ability to access healthcare. You can read the research about the correlation between social deprivation and poorer health outcomes, so whatever you want to attribute that to, we know that when people are worse off and living in more socially deprived areas, they have worse health outcomes and that’s something that we feel very passionately shouldn’t be the case.
We were founded more than 100 years ago to help ordinary working class people access healthcare before the NHS even existed. We believe in that ethos as strongly today – where you live or how much money you earn shouldn’t be the differentiator between whether you have a good health outcome or a poor health outcome.
Has that been one of the reasons for your work with Teeth Team?
The single biggest reason for children having to undergo general anaesthetic in hospital is for tooth extraction, which to me is absolutely shocking because it is so preventable. When you look at the statistics and you see the variation between affluent areas and socially deprived areas, it just seems like such an obvious thing to try and tackle. We’re delighted to help support Teeth Team, whose work we’re helping to expand across the country and we’ve been partnering with them to create material that we can use to lobby the Government, to help improve children’s oral healthcare. Whether its other businesses, or whoever it is, the more we can get initiatives going, the bigger impact it will have.
Could you give me one an example where Simplyhealth has made a revolutionary difference?
We worked with one hospital where the wards were full of older patients, with 90 per cent of them being readmitted to hospital within a month, because they didn’t have the support they needed to stay home. This is clearly extremely bad for them, but also means that the NHS resources are tied up in those people and they’re not able to treat other patients. We supported the Royal Voluntary Service in implementing a scheme where older people going home were paired up with a befriender, who for six weeks would pay home visits and make sure that the person had the support they needed. Two years later, the readmission rates have been reduced from 90 per cent to just seven per cent, which is having an incredible impact on the lives of the people we are supporting and their friends and family.
It had such a positive impact on the local borough council social care budgets that they agreed to pick up the funding, so we’re now able to move our funding away from there, because we’ve created a sustainable program that’s good for the NHS, good for the social care system, and good for the individuals that it is helping.
Mind were your chosen charity for the Simplyhealth Great Run in 2018. What specific changes do you hope to see materialise in the areas of mental health this year?
One of the big barriers to accessing better mental health is being open to talking about it, and I know that’s not always easy. If you’re a highly trained professional dentist, or a caregiver, then actually opening up to some of these issues may be quite challenging, so part of it is about awareness. The difference it can make for someone at an early stage to be able to talk to somebody through the youth counselling services here in the UK, for instance, or when you talk to colleagues here at Simplyhealth about the difference that going out to run or take part in exercise has made to their lives and their ability to cope with stress, it is fantastic.
I know at present you’re looking into building garden areas for older people, while also working across youth outreach programmes… will a number of equally important charitable initiatives continue throughout 2019?
Most certainly. As always, we will be thinking about how we can get our dentists involved, for instance like our activity with Teeth Team and we’ll be looking closer at mouth cancer. We have chosen Diabetes UK as our charity partner for the Great Run in 2019 to increase awareness of how exercise and healthy choices can help people reduce the risk of diabetes. Only recently we launched the Active Plan, which is tailored to help runners stay fit and well. It gives people easy access to physio, so if you pull anything when you’re training, you can get treated early. There’s quite an interesting piece of research that has recently come out about the link between oral health and running in particular, as people are taking quite sugary protein supplements, which can be damaging to their oral health. That’s quite a strong bit of material...I think people don’t always think about that as an aspect of it.
The work you do, to a large extent, is helping the NHS by alleviating some of the pressures on its services. Do you think other companies should be doing more to mirror your approach?
Having worked in other businesses, what makes the work we do here so special is that we truly do exist to help people access better healthcare. We don’t have owners, shareholders, or external investors, so we don’t have people taking money out of the business. We are set up to help our colleagues, our customers and our communities get better healthcare and it’s woven into everything we do. We do have a significant commitment in that we give 10 per cent of our adjusted pre-tax profits to charity each year, and we encourage our colleagues to participate in charity-related activities. One of the things the Great Run has enabled us to do is to encourage a lot more of our staff to get active and to take part in Great Run events, but also to run routinely throughout the year. We’ve got some terrific case studies of people who have very openly talked about how this has helped them to manage their own health, including mental health issues.
We also communicate our preventive care approach through our products and services to help customers make informed choices and look after themselves. The responsibility is very seriously considered through everything that we do. It’s not a sideline to being a business. It’s the reason we are in business.
Reproduced with kind permission of www.the-probe.co.uk