Winning the election will be the easy part for the next Secretary of State for Health

The 'lucky' winner of the post of next Health Secretary will take over a service facing unprecedented but not unpredictable demand for NHS care from a population living longer (often with increasingly complex health and care needs), and with little spare cash to pay for it.

Who will the lucky winner be, asks Nick Samuels
Who will the lucky winner be, asks Nick Samuels
They will take over a service with stratospheric brand appeal and high satisfaction, but a complicated narrative that calls for major changes to services to improve quality, meet demand and do it efficiently. 

NHS communicators face the twin challenge of playing their part in keeping the current show on the road, while also leading the public debates on how it needs to change.

Day-to-day comms plans are buffeted by events. 

Frontline NHS communicators working in ambulance, community, hospital and mental health services need eyes and ears in the back of their heads – 360° radar, sonar and periscope would help too – as they face multiple audiences with a variety of messages and narratives competing for attention.

This general election campaign adds to the melee: public, media and political scrutiny feels fiercer, less predictable and with potentially very high stakes. 

Beyond that scrutiny is the political debate about how to improve, fix, transform, save, modernise, protect the NHS – which politicians variously love, are passionate about, will stand by, are committed to, and is their absolute priority.

Working in comms, in a service so arduously adored and protected by the people who decide its policies, is a unique challenge. 

The campaign rhetoric of more money, nurses and doctors in the next five years feels distant from the frontline reality of more patients today and plans for very different care models in the future. 

The NHS is trying to move away from being hospital-centred to treating people at home, keeping them healthy for longer, supporting them to live with long-term conditions as independently as possible.

But the public debate is focused on hospitals and A&Es. In fact the NHS has been committed to this shift for years and yet it still looks very much like it did 10 and 20 years ago – blue lights, hospitals and A&E departments.

Frontline NHS communicators will be at the forefront of managing discussions, engagements and consultations with staff, patients and local communities about radical new ways the NHS will look in a few years' time, while answering media calls about the day’s latest perceived outrage or heroic achievement.

The gap between politicians’ promises of more tomorrow and patients’ demands for more today is vast and the journey between the two will not be made overnight. 

There are no quick fixes to the NHS’ need for long-lasting change. The journey will require the NHS to communicate brilliantly, listen attentively and engage meaningfully, taking the rough days with the rougher ones.

Nick Samuels is director of comms for NHS Providers

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