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Rising to the NHS challenge

Private providers must show they are delivering improvements to win hearts and minds.

Opposition to the Government's Health and Social Care Bill is at fever pitch. Now it's not 'just' the unions and Labour calling for the Bill to be dropped, but the Royal Colleges too.

Before Christmas, privatisation hit the headlines again, when Labour claimed that up to half of 160,000 NHS beds could be turned over to private patients. In January, the editors of the British Medical Journal, Health Service Journal and Nursing Times took the unusual step of all publishing the same editorial, saying the upheaval 'has been unnecessary, poorly conceived, badly communicated and a dangerous distraction at a time when the NHS is required to make unprecedented savings'. It was an unholy mess, they said.

But, despite the frenzy in Westminster, change is already happening on the ground; structures are changing and staff and contracts moving.

Private operator Circle has taken on management of Hinchingbrooke Hospital in Cambridgeshire, and Virgin Care has won the contract for provision of community services in Surrey.

The media and political debate tends to oversimplify the nature of the changes - not surprising: they are complex. But this ignores that there has for some time been private provision of NHS services.

Still, 'private companies' and 'competition' are toxic words in the NHS debate. One example is the re-drafting of regulator Monitor's new powers by the Department of Health from 'promoting competition' to 'preventing anti-competitive behaviour'.

Nuffield Health's article in this supplement is absolutely right to stress its third sector credentials, which amount to a real competitive advantage for savvy commissioners wanting to avoid public outcry.

But what should private sector providers be doing to ensure their reputations aren't caught in the crossfire?

First, new providers need a clear message on how their services will help local trusts deliver on their 'QIPP' (Quality, Innovation, Productivity and Prevention) plan.

Second, the private sector needs a strong internal comms plan to ensure staff morale and productivity, and also because staff hold the key to external comms challenges. Although the NHS experiences high rates of staff absence and work-related ill health, there is a disconnect between reality and the common perception of media and politicians that staff are only happy working directly for the NHS.

The Boorman review is a good starting point for talking about staff well-being and, frankly, it should not be hard to match the NHS in this area, exceeding stakeholders' expectations.

Third, providers need a systematic external engagement strategy, to show they are listening to local stakeholders. Engagement with the new powers (Clinical Commissioning Groups, Clinical Senates and Health and Wellbeing Boards) is key to winning hearts, minds and contracts.

Last, since service businesses live or die by their ability to meet and pre-empt consumer demand, perhaps the greatest opportunity lies in the private sector's ability to deliver on the Government's promise to put patients 'at the heart of the NHS'.

With Health Secretary Andrew Lansley's mantra of 'no decision about me without me' ringing in patients' ears, being able to demonstrate the benefits of choice will separate the winners from the losers. The sector has to communicate how it is transforming the patient experience, and meeting QIPP at the same time.

Tamora Langley is head of healthcare public affairs at Weber Shandwick

Ruth McEwen is associate director public affairs at Weber Shandwick

Views in brief

Which patient group has deployed the most effective comms strategy?

TL: The Patients Association has punched well above its weight as a small charity by tapping into political agendas like the Health and Social Care Bill.

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

RM: In a digital age of real-time comment and crises any risk strategy must cover viral attacks.

We advise social media crisis training experience.

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

TL: Working with the team at Monitor to review its comms strategy and particularly its proposed sector regulator role and new duties to patients.

From PRWeek's healthcare supplement, March 2012

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