The surreal partnership that reduces hospital pressures

13 Apr 2018 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 13 Apr 2018

NHS staff celebrate at a Widnes Vikings game. Pic: Widnes Vikings RLFC

Scope looks at a remarkable partnership between a health authority and a rugby club which supported a 7.2% reduction in local hospital admissions.

Last November the prestigious Rosa Parkes award for innovation in the National Health Service went, not to a surgeon, researcher or administrator, but to Widnes Vikings, a small town rugby league club on Merseyside. It was a surreal moment for all those present at the O2 Arena that evening.

Speaking at the ceremony health analyst Roy Lilley said that the Vikings’ work had been “little short of genius. It is impossible to understate the significance of this campaign. It is a true exemplar.”

The Beat the Scrum campaign is designed to help tackle one of the most intractable problems faced by the health service: the tsunami of pressure faced by hospital emergency department.

 This winter Northern Ireland hospitals were overwhelmed with a 14% year-on-year increase in people attending Emergency Departments and 928 waiting more than 12 hours for admission, transfer or discharge.

It is important to stress that the vast majority of these people are there because they need to be. But their treatment is not helped by people who show up with minor, non-urgent, non-life-threatening conditions, seemingly oblivious to the services provided by minor injury units, GPs and pharmacists.

Every year hospitals appeal for people only to show up in an emergency, yet the message appears not to get through. People with insect bites, cuts and bruises, even heavy colds and flu turn up at the door.

This is not a problem confined to Northern Ireland, it is the same story everywhere. Roy Lilley says that addressing it is “the difference between being seen eventually in A&E and being seen in A&E.“

So why did a rugby club take up the challenge, what did it do, how much did it cost, and what lessons are there to be learned here, in Northern Ireland and elsewhere?



The club’s director of communications and digital engagement is John Hughes. He joined the Vikings at the beginning of last season. He knew the club well because he had  worked with it before when he was employed by the national charity Community Integrated Care (CIC). CIC had worked with the club on an inspiring project for people with dementia. It involved former players visiting care homes to reminisce with older people, and also bringing them to attend games.

Hughes was aware of the crisis in emergency departments and thought the club would be well placed to help. There was no revenue in the campaign, at least not at first, but for a sporting organisation that is so central to the local community, it could reach the right audience.

It also had the right playing staff. “We develop young players, so many of our team have been with us since they were 14 or 15 and at the heart of what we do is not just to develop good players, but also to develop good men. And they have been really enthusiastic and up for this from day one.”

He wanted to develop a campaign that not only showed the benefits to people of seeking care in the right place at the right time, but also connected directly into the sport. The Halton Clinical Commissioning Group was keen to work with the club and so a partnership was formed.

Widnes is in Halton Borough Council area. It does not have an acute hospital but does have two Urgent Care Centres (these offer similar services to minor injuries units and are typically staffed by doctors).

The objective was to direct people to use the most appropriate service based on their condition and also to promote services such as flu vaccinations to further reduce stress on the service. It was also important to explain why this was in their interests. So, for example, the waiting time for Halton’s Urgent Care Centres is around 57 minutes, as opposed to 4 hours in an A&E.

With a budget of a few thousand pounds Hughes developed 20 videos starting with Beat the Scrum, where he got players to scrummage in a hospital waiting room. Another shows the Vikings’ coach Denis Betts laying down the law to his players about local health facilities. The clips are all just a few seconds long, are cheesy but fun, and make a clear, simple point.



What happened next was beyond his expectations. The winter series of videos has been viewed more than 300,000 times. Visits to the Urgent Care Centres started to rise, pressures on A&E to decline. It is, of course, vital to ensure that such campaigns are not designed to put people off from seeking medical help when they need it, but to point them in the right direction.

Neighbouring health authorities started to take notice and legends from nearby clubs Warrington and St Helens got involved as well. The campaign was especially important to health bodies because it allowed them to connect to audiences which they traditionally find hard to reach – especially the so-called hidden 40% of people who have practically no contact with health services.

This has now culminated in health bodies affiliated to the Mid Mersey A&E Delivery Board getting together to sponsor the club and Beat the Scrum now appears on the front of the club jersey.

Earlier this year the club used match screened on Sky TV to celebrate the National Health Service with health workers doing a lap of honour around the ground, directly connecting the fans in the ground to the people of the health service.

The campaign has received enormous interest from other sports and health bodies across England and Wales seeking to replicate it elsewhere.

It has long been recognised that many issues can be raised and promoted through sport. Widnes Vikings have proved that even with a small budget it is possible to make a difference.

Could it work here? Yes, but what is required to make it work is sporting organisations that are deeply rooted in their communities, the expertise to do community engagement well, and good characters in the dressing rooms who will give up their time and are committed to the cause.

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