GPs to join NHS comms front line as healthcare reforms take shape

GPs will take on the role of local NHS spokespeople amid fears that cuts will hinder efforts to communicate major changes in healthcare.

New role: GPs join NHS comms front line
New role: GPs join NHS comms front line

NHS England director of comms Colin Douglas said senior frontline staff, including doctors, would be placed at the heart of PR efforts within the new system.

He said: 'These NHS leaders have an important role to play when it comes to accountability within their local communities. It's a key part of the new set-up.'

On Monday, reforms were enacted handing budgetary responsibility to GPs across 211 Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs), leading to a major shake-up among some of the health service's leading PR figures (see story below).

Under the set-up, the newly formed NHS England - formerly the NHS Commissioning Board - will take on an oversight role, with Douglas heading a 47-strong comms team. It will be aided by about 90 PR staff from two of the 23 Commissioning Support Units (CSUs), bodies created to provide comms and other support to the CCGs as and when required.

Douglas, who will be replaced on an interim basis by Roger Davidson at the end of this month, pointed to a comms agenda of 'pushing forward transparency' that allowed the public access to performance data and to engage more with the NHS.

Highlighting overall NHS comms staff cutbacks of 3,000 to '1,200 to 1,400' over the past four years, he acknowledged that 'greater resource sharing' would now have a key role to play in reacting to scrutiny.

However, senior sources have suggested to PRWeek that there could be as few as 600 PR professionals working in the new system, with not all comms staff finding new roles in the shake-up.

Sam Lister, director of comms for the Department for Health (DH), put the reforms in the context of wider public health changes. He said the NHS now had 'an independent identity' and 'stronger voice', with DH teams doing less active handling of day-to-day comms.

But one insider countered Douglas' claim that effective 'arrangements' were in place. He warned the central set-up was 'not ready' for such responsibility, with comms posts still needing to be filled and vital software allowing information to be shared between teams not fully operational.

LCA hires NHS London comms head as reforms kick in

Top NHS comms staff forced to find new jobs amid Government's reforms to service.

London Communications Agency has snapped up NHS London's PR head as top health communicators have been forced to find new roles.

Stephen Webb has become a director at the agency after NHS changes resulted in the abolition of Strategic Health Authorities (SHAs) - of which NHS London was one.

SHAs judged where funds were allocated within their region and sat alongside Primary Care Trusts, which were also abolished.

Both have been replaced by a large network of locally based Clinical Commissioning Groups, headed by GPs.

Webb, who had previously worked at Transport for London, said he was looking forward to 'broadening horizons', having not experienced agency life before.

Three other senior level comms heads that led groups of SHAs across the country have moved to new jobs.

Elaine Darbyshire, who oversaw comms for North England SHAs, becomes director of comms for a Yorkshire-based CSU; Lee Whitehead, who oversaw comms for Midlands and East SHAs, becomes director of people and comms at Health Education England; and Andrew Millward, who led comms for South England SHAs, becomes director of business services at NHS Property Services.

Reforms timeline

April 2013 Changes come into full effect as reports point to problems with the new 111 advice line service.

September 2012 Health Secretary Andrew Lansley is replaced by Jeremy Hunt.

March 2012 Health Bill receives Royal assent after more than 1,000 amendments.

April 2011 Government announces 'pause' in progress of the Bill for chance to 'listen, reflect and improve' the proposals amid strong opposition and fears of privatisation.

July 2010 White Paper on reforms published, two months after the coalition comes into power.

Key figures

211 Number of GP-led CCGs within the new NHS set-up*

£106bn The National Health Service's annual budget for 2011-12**

£20bn Savings in the National Health Service required by 2015**

18% Percentage of public who said the changes would improve the NHS***

Source: *NHS England; **Guardian.co.uk; ***ComRes survey for ITV News (March 2013).

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