There is no 'silly season' in healthcare comms

There will be no 'silly season' for healthcare comms this summer, as NHS changes mean there is an ever-greater need to support patient advocates.

Patients are now at the centre of decision-making, says Alexa Forbes
Patients are now at the centre of decision-making, says Alexa Forbes

It’s a quieter time for some areas of comms, but in pharmaceutical health PR there is a sea change afoot that will not only keep us busy throughout the summer, but will form a focus for us specialists for years to come.

It involves patient power. Traditionally, the pharmaceutical industry has been a research-driven one that focused its efforts on unmet needs in disease areas that were lacking treatment options. Real-life patient needs were rarely the primary focus.

Then, about 20 years ago, the healthcare environment began to change. The Health and Social Care Act 2001 gave the NHS a duty to involve the public to help patients, carers and the public to act as a lever for change and improvement.

The Patient and Public Involvement Forums (PPIF) set up in response to this were operational from the end of 2003 ­until they were abolished in 2008.

In 2005, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) formed the Citizen’s ­Council, a group comprising patient and public representatives whose role was to provide NICE with views on a wide range of moral or patient equity issues.

Patient representatives also became stakeholders in NICE technology and guideline committees. Expert patients were born.

The impact on the pharma industry and its comms agencies has been profound. The industry has needed to change its approach and put the patient at the centre of its decision-making.

This rise in strength of the patient voice is an important trend that we as communicators have embraced, and it has become a major part of our work.

We enable patient advocacy groups to communicate the unfairness of unmet need and give them the skills to fight for best-practice care and access to treatments.

Our activities now comprise running multinational patient advisory boards, co-ordinating global awareness campaigns on behalf of patient coalitions and providing individual groups with the skills to lobby effectively for patient access to best care.

Patients are even starting to be consulted in the early stages of developing protocols for clinical trials, and new legislation means that every pharmaceutical company is now mandated to provide public access to lay summaries of clinical trial results, which falls to us communicators.

This new environment has allowed pharmaceutical comms to evolve our offering and ensure we, too, can put patients at the centre of our programmes.

NHS chief executive Simon Stevens has been strengthened by the recent election outcome. Under his leadership, NHS ­England has shown an increasing involvement in putting price pressure on new medicines and, as communicators, we need to consider what this might mean for patient access as the NHS continues to need to find ways to balance the books.

One thing is certain: patient advocates are now highly skilled in fighting injustice and unfairness and we will continue to be busy in their support.

Alexa Forbes is chief executive of Four Health Communications

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