Helping clinicians talk to
patients about giving

by Tim Johnson and Simon Pennington - 21 October 2019


With philanthropy at the heart of a healthcare revolution, it’s never been more important for health professionals to engage in productive conversations with patients. Tim Johnson and Simon Pennington explore some of the ways you can help make this happen.

We are living through some of the most exciting times for biomedicine and the future of health provision. Advances in technology, the power of big data, the mapping of the human genome, our improved understanding of major diseases…all of these have created the current potential for huge progress in the diagnosis, treatment and cure of hundreds of medical conditions.

Philanthropy will be critical to ensuring these advances bring benefits to patients as quickly as possible. Hospital charities have been intensifying their fundraising efforts and thinking hard about who they can ask to support their work, and how. Data privacy regulations prohibit the use of data provided by patients for one purpose (medical treatment) being used for another (marketing and fundraising). They also prohibit hospitals sharing data with another organisation, regardless of the close relationship between a hospital and its associated charity. So how best do we help patients and families who want to support their hospital through giving or fundraising?

Our experience of fundraising at healthcare organisations, such as Moorfields Eye Hospital, Great Ormond Street Hospital, Evelina London Children Hospital, and Maggie’s Centres suggests that many patients spontaneously offer to help. This provides a very straightforward opportunity to start a conversation with them about the mission of the hospital and the role of its associated charity. And, when patient and family engagement is done effectively, it can result in rewarding, uplifting and positive developments for everyone.

But are clinical colleagues always receptive to responding appropriately to that offer of help and equipped to embrace that conversation? Or are they likely to feel that it is awkward at best and perhaps even morally wrong at worst? We’ve found that clinicians find this conversation easier when they are able to understand a patient’s motivations and aspirations.

So, why do patients and family want to give?
Most patients, and their families, understandably want information about the medical procedure they will undergo and the likely outcomes. For some, that’s a wish to understand the basic biology and physiology of the human body and their, or their loved one’s, condition and prognosis as they undergo treatment. For others, it can become a personal mission to help the world find better diagnosis and improved treatments for anyone battling the condition, now or in the future. And for some, recognising the limitations of NHS funding, the experience of treatment for the patient or their family is something they want to invest in to make as good as it can be.

One senior breast cancer specialist told us that, when patients expressed an interest in helping, he would try to tease out what they really meant. He wanted to better understand their level of interest and aspiration, and their desire to take action. He would then either point them to an appropriate patient support group, the medical research charity of which he was a Trustee, or to the hospital’s charity. He would not pre-empt the conversation, but if it was instigated by the patient he would never duck or deflect it. He recognised both the importance of helping them fulfil their wishes and the potential impact of their charitable support.

The act of fundraising or giving can be very important for patients. We’ve met many people who have said it played a significant role in their healing and recovery. For some, they felt it allowed them to “repay” the debt of gratitude they felt to the institution where they received care, or to the medical research charities whose funding of scientific breakthroughs led to their successful treatment.

Similarly, for those who have sadly lost a loved one, giving can be a very important part of the grieving process. Parents who have lost a child to a rare or complex condition understandably struggle to comprehend why their child should have been taken at such a young age. They often wish to memorialise their child’s short life by seeking to make sure that some good can come from such a tragic event.

All these people – sometimes referred to as “grateful patients” – raise and give significant funds. The medical world has an unwritten duty to embrace their charitable wishes, just as they have a duty to help them clinically. It’s another reason why we should all try to make giving as simple and accessible as possible.

Simple words that may lead to charitable support
When a patient tells a health professional how grateful they are and asks if they could do anything to help, the instinctive clinician’s response is “it was nothing”, or “all in a day’s work”. Yet experience shows this can be adjusted to: “Thank you, we were pleased to be here for you. Tell me more about what it meant to you.” This is more likely to open up the conversation and help health professionals to understand the patient’s wishes, and can then support them by putting them in touch with those who can help.

We’re not expecting every clinical colleague to become an enthusiastic cheerleader for fundraising. A small number will be keen to engage, understanding that this could bring benefit to both patients and cause. They may choose to stay involved in the discussions, providing input – ideally alongside a professional fundraiser. They could help the patient or family member understand more about the importance of research, or share expert insight into a disease or treatment and the opportunities for improvements. But for others, when a patient expresses a desire to give, it’s enough to say: “Thank you, that’s fantastic. I have a great colleague in the fundraising team who can take this forward with you, can I put you in touch?

It’s also important to remind clinical colleagues that, if they engage with someone or potentially even help secure support, they’re not doing it for themselves but for the benefit of their patients. Gifts will drive forward medical research or provide new state-of-the-art facilities which might not otherwise materialise. As a result, more patients could be treated, or may live longer – ultimately advancing the mission that all healthcare professionals are committed to.

Clinicians and fundraisers working hand in hand
Finally, our experience of hospital fundraising, just like fundraising anywhere, shows the value of a good professional fundraiser if you want to maximise success. And, if clinicians and fundraisers work closely together, and understand their respective roles and responsibilities, then donors can have a highly rewarding experience. Building trust and understanding between the clinical and fundraising teams is therefore imperative. This takes careful thought and preparation from the fundraiser and a willingness to get involved from clinicians.

We have seen that philanthropy can support a gold standard of care in hospitals. The healthcare revolution will bring major advances, and charitable giving can ensure they translate into benefits for patients as quickly as possible. That can only happen with clinicians and health professionals at the heart of our fundraising efforts. The patients and families they speak with have the potential to become long-term supporters, changing the lives of many more patients and families, possibly even for generations to come.

Find out more
More Partnership is proud to be working with some of the UK's leading healthcare organisations, including Barts Charity, Cambridge Children’s, Guy’s & St Thomas’ Charity, Moorfields Eye Charity and the Royal Free Charity. To find out more about how we could help your organisation, please get in touch with Tim or Simon, or give us a call on 01382 224730.