Getting the efficiency mantra right in the NHS

NHS and healthcare messaging must take into account the importance and political implications of the service's efficiency agenda, says Jenny Ousbey, an associate director at Lexington Communications.

PRs should help healthcare clients to create a strong narrative around value, says Ousbey
PRs should help healthcare clients to create a strong narrative around value, says Ousbey

Efficiency is set to be the mantra for Jeremy Hunt and the NHS over the next five years. With next month's review by Lord Carter set to contain a template for how hospitals can save money, healthcare comms professionals would do well to sit up and listen, rather than assume this is one for the policy wonks.

It will come as no shock that a Conservative Health Secretary is going to focus on cutting red tape and waste in the NHS. What is interesting is that Hunt is using this focus to cut a deal with the NHS; in exchange for the NHS getting £8bn ‘additional’ funding, the service has to find £22bn in savings.

In short, the £22bn efficiency challenge is effectively QIPP 2.0. In 2009 David Nicholson, then head of the NHS, challenged the service to make £20bn of savings between 2011 and 2014 – the result was the NHS beginning the Quality Innovation Productivity and Prevention project. However, during the later years of the coalition Government there was open recognition in the Department of Health of the snail’s pace by which this £20bn of savings could be found in the service. There will be similar sentiment being expressed in the corridors of the department this time around.

A cynic would argue that Hunt’s political game plan is to hold the NHS’ feet to the fire early on in the Parliament. When the inevitable happens, and the service fails to meet the efficiency challenge in 2020, the NHS can be blamed instead of Whitehall. This is why the efficiency agenda is already shaping the political, regulatory and sector agenda in the NHS.

Healthcare comms professionals often have conversations with our clients about how they can ‘bring to life’ their products or services by talking about care quality and value for money, while always talking about the patient in everything that they do. In the current climate, the need to collaborate with clients to create a strong narrative around value and how it directly relates to outcomes is vital. 

In June, Lord Carter published an interim review into NHS productivity, working with 22 NHS providers in the process. His report contained recommendations of how hospitals could save up to £5bn every year by 2020, through a more efficient use of medicines, devices, procurement of supplies and use of staff.

In September, the full Carter Review will contain a template ‘model hospital’ alongside an adjusted treatment index or efficiency metric. Both will be used to effectively create a league table of efficiency from 2016.

But as has recently been highlighted by Dame Julie Moore, chief executive of University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust, the NHS can’t measure productivity in the same way as industry. This is why some in the service have accused the metrics produced in the interim Carter review of being rushed. Others are worried that finding these savings will come at the expense of patient care. Yet Hunt has claimed the path to safer care is also the path to lower cost.

This is why the efficiency agenda, while appearing geeky to health policy outsiders, matters to comms professionals. If value, cost and money are front of mind for your healthcare clients, then they should be front of mind for you too when you are advising on messaging. Getting your clients’ efficiency mantra right acknowledges the importance it will be afforded by decision-makers and influencers across the health sector in the coming months and years.

Jenny Ousbey is an associate director of Lexington Communications

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