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Door open to private sector

Private providers need to demonstrate their worth to GPs, patients and commissioners.

In 2012 the private sector will need to demonstrate that it is everyone's ally. Even though the role of independent providers has grown in recent years, providing hundreds of thousands of people with acute care, mental-health care and care for the elderly, it is still much maligned by some key decision makers, GPs and the media.

Private companies need to communicate better the benefits they deliver. Whether targeting patients, GPs, NHS staff or commissioners, a communications plan implemented by a proactive team is vital not only to maintain but to build a positive reputation.

Private operators are not going to stop providing services to the NHS whatever the future of the Health and Social Care Bill. Services will still be provided by the best performing companies offering the best products with the best outcomes. According to Laing and Buisson's Healthcare Market Review 2011, an estimated 1,011,000 in-patient and day-care cases were carried out in UK private hospitals in 2010, of which 26 per cent were funded by the NHS.

Private hospitals truly offer choice to the patient and they play an important role in keeping GPs informed, providing training and information that assists referral decisions.

However, it doesn't mean that the public and GPs sing from the same hymn sheet when it comes to accessing private healthcare.

In 2011, Spire Healthcare carried out two surveys. The first asked 2,000 members of the public about their attitudes to private healthcare. It found that a quarter of adults who earn below-average salaries said they would pay to go private, even though 87 per cent did not have private medical insurance.

The second survey was submitted to a panel of 2,000 GPs, of whom 52 per cent said they only refer their patient to a private hospital if the patient asks about it, and 40 per cent do not ask if a patient has medical insurance.

According to the 2011 Royal College of General Practitioners membership survey, less than 14 per cent of its members believe the reforms will result in better care for the patient. And 90 per cent fear greater involvement of the private sector, worsening patient care and deteriorating consultant relations.

Whatever the result of the Bill, GPs are used to change and will always focus on their patients; after all their area of responsibility within the NHS has changed almost ten times in the past 20 years.

To ensure independent providers cut through the competition and win contracts they need to demonstrate they have the solution. Each communication should validate the efficiencies they deliver and be targeted at decision makers and influencers.

The OFT's decision to provisionally refer the private healthcare sector to the Competition Commission will ultimately lead to better comms. Declaring there is a lack of 'accessible, standardised and comparable information' on price and quality wasn't news to the main players. All providers welcome a level playing field where decision makers can compare like-for-like and help patients, commissioners, consultants and insurers make informed decisions.

Healthcare lags behind other industries in how it chooses to communicate with stakeholders. Private healthcare is catching up, engaging with the news agenda, embracing social media, reversing its negative reputation and engaging with customers and patients. It now needs to maintain momentum, build its reputation and invest in creative comms that deliver the results.

Felicity Knights is director at Merchant Marketing Group

Views in brief

What must you consider when devising a strategy to communicate risk?

Transparency and responsibility. Imagine explaining risk to a breast augmentation patient post the PiP implant crisis? Patients are increasingly going to ask about the risks involved with surgery, the prosthesis as well as the responsibility of the surgeon and the care provider. Some risk cannot be foreseen but there is a duty to ensure the patient makes an informed decision.

On which healthcare comms project are you most proud of working?

Recently it has been about placing numerous clients in the GP press when they have never had a voice or point of view published in this influential media.

From PRWeek's healthcare supplement, March 2012

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