At the turn of the millennium, and to great fanfare, Tony Blair and his Labour Government announced a ten-year plan of reform for the NHS.
Heralded as the biggest change to healthcare in England since the NHS was formed in 1948 - a claim also levelled at the 2012 Health and Social Care Act - the imaginatively titled NHS Plan outlined a series of changes that by 2002 had led to the creation of more than 300 Primary Care Trusts across England, groups responsible for about 80 per cent of the NHS' annual expenditure. Ten years on, there is more than a slight sense of deja vu.
The enactment of the Health and Social Care Act will see a radical restructuring of the NHS, and powers for commissioning transferred to GP-led Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs), of which 229 are planned.
This transition will possibly be smoother than it was ten years ago, having learned significant lessons, including the involvement of the private sector to ensure the necessary competencies are in place. This was a highly contentious move when first mooted as a means of addressing shortcomings in PCT commissioning, and is still deemed so by many including the British Medical Association.
However, on 1 April, CCGs, supported by the NHS Commissioning Board's local area teams and other bodies such as Health and Wellbeing Boards, Healthwatch and the rest of the NHS, were not likely to have suddenly and miraculously aligned.
So how does this translate as an opportunity for the pharma industry? In the majority of cases, no longer do pharma firms see commissioners just as a hurdle that needs to be overcome. The pharma industry has become a welcome bedfellow, with resource and problem-solving expertise. So is the trajectory already set, or does the Act provide a chance to again redefine this partnership specifically for comms?
As comms professionals, we are regularly charged with raising awareness or educating healthcare professionals and consumer audiences on effective disease management. In this role, we have been trailblazers, using novel ways to ensure message cut-through.
While we continue to innovate, suspicion lingers among some parties as to our motivation and impartiality, and how trustworthy these campaigns and resources are. The traditional response to this is engagement and partnership with third-party organisations and charities, but for various reasons, we often find ourselves facing a significant roadblock to success.
How do we address this? In the same way that the relationship between pharma firms and commissioners has been redefined as a provider of significant value to the NHS beyond the drugs they manufacture, so can we redefine our relationship with the new NHS bodies, helping to increase their comms footprint.
Every year, the pharma industry invests vast resources in the development of online and mobile disease-awareness campaigns. Many are award-winning but doomed to a short shelf-life as a result of the necessary, changing priorities of pharma firms.
Recently, a number of firms have looked to address this issue by passing ownership of websites to third parties and charities.
This model has the potential to be replicated, with CCGs or Health and Wellbeing Boards neatly aligning to their remit as promoters of public health, drivers of health improvement and the tackling of health inequalities. The potential is significant and, as healthcare communicators, we need to seize the moment. If we do not, we could be waiting another ten years until the next, inevitable NHS upheaval.
VIEWS IN BRIEF
How are the NHS reforms changing your work?
From the moment the Bill was first tabled, the media have been awash with news and opinion, and it's rare that a meeting passes without a client asking how we integrate our approach.
Which TV programme title best sums up the culture of your agency?
Jim Henson's The Storyteller, because we all know 'the story is the thing'. The untold story is even more powerful - like that of our namesake Togo, who helped save thousands of lives from an outbreak of diphtheria in Alaska.