Intended for healthcare professionals

Letters Patient participation groups

Patient participation groups could provide huge voluntary support to the NHS

BMJ 2021; 372 doi: (Published 04 February 2021) Cite this as: BMJ 2021;372:n279
  1. Joan Woolard, therapist
  1. Littlebury Medical Centre, Spalding PE12 7DE, UK
  1. joanwoolard38{at}

NHS England has announced more plans for reorganising the NHS.1

Patient participation groups were the idea of a doctor in 1972 to support the work of medical practices in much the same way as parent teacher associations support schools. They were slow to take off, and even though about 75% of general practitioners now sign a contractual agreement to have them, many people don’t know they exist. The reason for this apparent reluctance to participate might be that the fittest patients to run these voluntary groups are not the most frequent visitors to doctors, and therefore they miss information about their local patient participation groups in the waiting room. In addition, practice managers might not be keen on what they see as extra work on top of an already heavy load.

Nonetheless, patient participation groups could provide the largest amount of support to the NHS from voluntary sources if promoted effectively and brought to the attention of the 750 000 potential volunteers who offered their services at the start of the pandemic. Red tape is also a block to volunteering. Patients must be trusted to manage their groups without unnecessary interference from professionals. The patient participation group at Littlebury Medical Centre in Holbeach, Lincolnshire, set up a dementia support group in 2011. Run entirely by volunteers independently of the medical practice, and funded by grant making sources such as the National Lottery, councils, and supermarkets, the group has a dedicated corner in the surgery waiting room providing information to patients encouraging them to join—at no cost to the NHS. Other voluntary community groups with similar objectives exist but are not attached to any official body and are often hard to find. Everyone knows where to find their doctor.

With covid-19 the NHS is already under enormous pressure. The enforced isolation of an entire population is adding an extra threat to life through the expected rise in mental illness, in addition to neglected physical ailments. Some of this pressure could be relieved by patient participation groups organising themselves to have telephone and Zoom rotas contacting patients most at risk. An effective recruitment campaign is needed to make people aware of patient participation groups and the work they do and what they could achieve. Never have they been more needed.


  • Competing interests: None declared.

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