This is part of our series of Patient Safety Spotlight interviews, where we talk to people working for patient safety about their role and what motivates them. Sonia talks to us about how her role at NHS Confederation helps her understand the issues facing NHS staff and why she decided to start drawing graphics to communicate important information to patients and staff.
About the Author
Sonia has worked in the NHS for over 15 years across various roles in patient safety, quality improvement and operational management. Alongside this, she works as an artist (Sonia Sparkles) to simplify and visually communicate key messages and concepts relating to improvement, leadership, wellbeing and patients. She holds a Masters in improvement and innovation, has won several awards for her creativity and artwork in healthcare, has illustrated children's books and runs several campaign and community groups based on improvement, wellbeing and sketch notes in healthcare.
Questions & Answers
Hi Sonia! Please can you tell us who you are and what you do?
My name is Sonia Nosheen, but many people know me as Sonia Sparkles, which is the name I use for my artistic work. Through my art, I aim to help increase patient and staff understanding in three particular areas in the healthcare system: patient empowerment, staff wellbeing and improvement processes. I create visuals and infographics to convey complex messages or wordy information in a way that people can easily understand. My aim is to present the key information on one page in a format that’s easy for people to digest.
For my day job, I work for NHS Confederation as a Senior Policy Adviser, supporting different hospitals to voice their concerns, opinions and feedback on the current situation in acute care. We amplify that feedback at a national level and raise it in political arenas.
How did you first become interested in patient safety?
When I was a Patient Safety Manager in the NHS, I quite often saw the finding of ‘policy not followed’ in root cause analysis (RCA) reports about patient safety incidents. On one occasion, I sat down with a nurse who was very upset about an incident so that we could look at the policy together and try and work out what had gone wrong. The policy was so long, about 80 pages, and I remember thinking that there had to be a way to create a simple reference point for staff around some policies.
I became even more interested in patient safety and the importance of communication six years ago when my mum was diagnosed with cancer. It’s vital that patients have information they can take away and read to try and understand their diagnosis and think of questions they want to go back and ask. My mum was given a thick booklet full of complex language which was very difficult for her to understand, especially as my mum’s first language isn’t English.
In the booklet I found one image of the lymphatic system and was able to use it to explain to my mum what her cancer was. It was a lightbulb moment for me—I realised that how information is provided to patients is so important. There are many people who for different reasons can’t connect to the information they’re given, and having been through that experience with my mum, I wanted to do something about the way healthcare communicates with patients. That was the starting point of Sonia Sparkles, and I started working to try and put images and simple language at the centre of healthcare communication. I believe it’s absolutely key to patient engagement and empowerment.
A lot of the materials I create relate to patient safety—I’ve produced visual guidance on topics like pressure ulcers and falls reduction, as well as simple pictorials about what patients should expect from an appointment or hospital stay. The visual element helps patients understand what’s being said to them in a really simple way. Equally, it helps staff retain the core points that they really need to remember.
What patient safety challenges do you see at the moment?
From a patient’s perspective, the main challenge at the moment is accessibility and navigation of healthcare services. The elective backlog has made the system more complex and difficult to navigate through and patients are struggling to access what they need. I also think education and empowerment for patients has suffered. If patients don’t understand the system and what they should be asking for, or have the power to push for things, it’s a real challenge for them to get the healthcare support they need.
What do you think the next few years hold for patient safety?
Having safety for staff means we will have safety for patients, so we really need to address the staffing issues the NHS is facing over the next few years. There are chronic workforce issues such as poor retention and attraction into roles. Ultimately if staff do not feel psychologically safe doing their jobs, patient safety can be compromised. It is important that the needs of staff are met across healthcare, including access to basic things like breaks, hot food and the right equipment. Recently, it has been encouraging to see a growing emphasis on supporting staff and understanding what the workforce needs.
The move towards digital innovation is also really positive. There are a lot more technologies and tools for patients that allow them to see their results and appointments and initiate follow ups. Having that shift to allow patients to become the deciders of their care seems to be becoming a more prominent goal. It’s difficult to achieve in current circumstances and innovation takes a long time to become embedded, but the move to empowering patients, giving them the knowledge of their care pathways and being more inclusive is great to see.
If you could change one thing in the healthcare system right now to improve patient safety, what would it be?
If I had a magic wand, I would break the retention cycle for staff. The word retention itself does not do justice to the difficulties staff are facing. Staff being able to work in roles that are attractive, accessible and achievable will make such a significant improvement to patient safety. If we’re able to improve the culture and conditions for staff, it will help improve the experience for patients as well. In recent years, care has become fragmented and patients often report not feeling listened to—all of these issues become worse if staff are constantly changing or leaving because of retention issues. On a positive note, the NHS has been making progress in this area and is committed to making further improvements, for example, through the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan.
How do your role at NHS Confederation and your Sonia Sparkles work interplay?
For my work as Sonia Sparkles to make a difference, it’s really important for me to stay connected to the healthcare setting. NHS Confederation is a really great place for me to be, because we’re a membership organisation that connects with all parts of healthcare. My role as a Senior Policy Adviser gives me the opportunity to connect with staff and hear their concerns, which provides me with a lens to really understand what’s going on in healthcare at the moment. Everything I draw needs to have a sense of emotion or connection—I want other people to look at my work and think, “I know what you mean,” or “that’s just what I needed.”
Whilst my day job is completely independent from the work I do as Sonia Sparkles, it helps me keep connected to the NHS.
Tell us one thing about yourself that might surprise us!
I recently illustrated a book for small children about an elephant who goes to a tea party and causes trouble! I really enjoyed the creative process, so I’ve decided to create my own visual book about postpartum depression. I’ll draw on my own personal experience and more widely to help other new mothers who are experiencing the same thing.