healthcomms

What’s next for the NHS and communications?

Freshwater’s healthcare team takes a look at the challenges facing the NHS and how effective communications is vital in responding to these challenges in the years ahead...

The NHS was one of the most hotly debated topics in the run-up to the General Election. On Election Day most voters cited ‘improving the NHS’ as one of the three most important issues for the UK. It seems likely that over the next parliament the state of the NHS will continue to be a defining issue.

The new Government faces major challenges when it comes to the NHS. It will want to maintain and, if possible, improve healthcare standards at the same time as the NHS budget requires savings and additional funding. This is on top of longstanding concerns around recruitment of staff and responding to the health needs of an ageing population.

These issues aren’t just challenges for clinical staff, but they will also impact communications professionals who work with the NHS. Changing priorities will require new communications strategies.

Funding

Simon Stevens, Chief Executive of NHS England, outlined in his Five Year Forward View a financially sustainable path for the NHS. He states that with growing demand on services, no further annual efficiencies, and flat real-terms funding, there will be a £30billion a year mismatch between resources and patient needs by 2020/21.

One way to reduce healthcare spending is through preventing ill health; for example, persuading people to adopt lifestyle changes that will lower their chances of being ill or injured. For example, if NHS organisations spend money on a marketing campaign which succeeds in stopping people smoking, it may save lives and money.

It’s this type of marketing strategy which NHS Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly Primary Care Trust employed to encourage people to make healthy choices and fight obesity. Freshwater and the Trust engaged directly with the public through holding Question Time-style events and hearings, in which patient groups, voluntary organisations and businesses discussed the issues. The campaign culminated in schemes like the Healthy Schools Programme, which supported healthier school meals and lunchboxes, breakfast clubs and more physical activity for school children.

Communications strategies like these will be necessary in making sure that the NHS is sustainable in the long term. If there is going to be less money in the NHS – and less money going into communications – then it is vital to show the health and financial value of spending on effective communications.

Recruitment of doctors and nurses

Another issue facing the NHS is staff shortages. Primary care especially is struggling because not enough people want to be GPs and too many doctors want to take early retirement.

Only 62% of GP training places are being filled in some parts of the country, while worryingly, the number of medicine graduates who go onto apply for general practice has fallen by 6% this year, an 18% drop since 2009. Last year, only 20% of medical students chose general practice as their post-studies destination – this is against a Government target of 50% by 2016.

In addition to these worrying trends, the number of current GPs who want to retire or leave the profession is growing. A 2015 survey of GPs showed that 56% of GPs expect to retire or leave before the age of 60.

General practice used to be a very popular profession, but now has a perception problem. One GP trainer in Walsall, interviewed by Pulse magazine, highlighted negative media coverage as one reason behind the large drop in the number of people who want to become GPs. But other professionals have cited growing workloads and the perception that it is an ‘unglamorous’ career.

This is exactly where communications and marketing has an important part to play. In January, NHS England released a 10-point strategy to boost recruitment and retention of GPs, which included a marketing campaign aimed at young doctors. Also in January, the Royal College of General Practitioners launched a GP recruitment video to undermine stereotypes that general practice is boring.

In a bid to make general practice a more attractive profession the expertise and experience of communications professionals is proving vital.

An ageing population

Today, over-65s outnumber under-16s, which is the first time this has ever happened in the UK. An older population typically accesses health services more frequently than their younger counterparts. Professor Sir Bruce Keogh, medical director at NHS England, said: “If the NHS continues to function as it does now, it’s going to really struggle to cope because the model of delivery and service that we have at the moment is not fit for the future.”

The older demographic also pose particular challenges for communications professionals working in the health sector. With the rise of the internet and social media, it is often forgotten that many people of all ages don’t use these channels. Communications strategies can’t just rely on tweeting links and boosting page likes, because many patients won’t have access to the internet.

A social media strategy is useful, but in many cases there will need to be more than that. When the Welsh Blood Service campaigned to improve awareness about blood donation, we produced leaflets aimed at local communities to encourage dialogue around the topic. The leaflets were written in English and Welsh, because we knew that many communities are better reached through written materials in their first language. It’s important to remember that PR techniques used to market a private sector product might not work when it comes to the public good of health.

Twenty-first century health campaigns aren’t just about 21st century technologies. Older forms of communication, like public events and leaflets, have their part to play as well.

Conclusion

Communications professionals working in the NHS will face new challenges – just like the rest of the NHS. But budget cuts, staff shortfalls and an ageing population doesn’t mean that health communications is less important. These changes will mean that effective communications in the health sector will be more important than ever.


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