OPINION: News Analysis - Revitalising the image of the health industry - The authorities responsible for managing the health industry are reassessing the way they tackle PR in the wake of recent high-profile medical scandals

In the past month, two separate public sector health bodies have appointed their first communications directors - a clear sign that the sector is seeking to improve its public image.

In the past month, two separate public sector health bodies have

appointed their first communications directors - a clear sign that the

sector is seeking to improve its public image.



Private health bodies have long been conscious of the need to manage

their reputations. Health insurance firms and pharmaceutical companies

have invested heavily in senior PR staff and external consultancies to

project the image they feel helps achieve business goals.



Publicly-funded organisations have been slower off the mark. Attention

only rests on public sector health PROs when things go wrong. In the

wake of the Bristol baby scandal, Harold Shipman and the removal of the

wrong kidney from an elderly patient, there is a fresh demand for the

implementation of high-level professional communications strategy.



A reluctance to embrace private sector methods, combined with a lack of

resources to invest in non-essential, non-clinical posts means that most

public health bodies have ignored PR for too long.



No more. The Commission for Health Improvement (CHI), a body set up last

November to ensure even standards of care across the country, this week

appointed its first communications director. Matt Tee, who assumes the

post next month, says the health sector is starting to treat

communications with greater respect, and uses as evidence the existence

of senior PROs at bodies as diverse as the London Ambulance Service and

major teaching hospitals. Tee argues that although the bodies have

different objectives - some regulate the medical profession, some seek

to improve it, others simply provide front-line care - they all have the

same aim of sound public health, and good PR can help achieve this.



’At its core our project is to ensure people have faith in the NHS. We

are starting to realise that we have to communicate to our publics not

just when things go wrong, but on a daily basis as things are going

right,’ Tee says.



His appointment comes shortly after the General Medical Council

appointed its own inaugural director-level head of communications. The

body regulates the medical profession in England and Wales, sets medical

school syllabi and can strike doctors from the clinical register. It

sometimes faces claims that its interests conflict, insofar as it is run

by, and for, doctors. Partly to dispel this, it has drafted in Andrew

Ketteringham as director of communications, reporting to the GMC’s chief

executive.



When he begins work next month, his job will be to garner coverage for

the GMC in the good times as well as the bad.



CHI chief executive Peter Homa says that when considering staff budgets,

management should take into account the fact that a good PRO costs as

much as two, perhaps three nurses. This partly explains why most

hospitals bolt communications on to someone else’s brief. However, the

CHI - free of the burdens of clinical practice - is planning to make the

necessary investment, hiring a team of up to six staff to support

Tee.



This move is welcomed by Leigh McGowan, head of communications at

Queen’s Medical Centre in Nottingham and chairman of the Association of

Healthcare Communicators. McGowan stresses that while it need not be an

either/or situation, he advises a chief executive faced with the choice

of one good PRO or two nurses to plump for the PRO. ’Good communications

can go a long way in making people feel valued, which increases the

ability to retain staff, a major issue in areas of the health sector,’

he says.



The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) - founded last

year to evaluate drugs and treatments on the basis of clinical value and

cost-effectiveness - treated PR as more than an add-on extra from the

start. Communications director Anne-Toni Rodgers sits on the board as an

executive director and reports to CEO Andrew Dillon. Rodgers’

organisation is new enough not to have established a reputation of any

kind yet, so the most important aspect of NICE’s PR is communicating

internally to doctors.



Rodgers accepts it has taken the public sector some time to catch up

with the private sector on communications spending, but stresses that

those working for state bodies work in a cash-capped environment.



One way round the budgetary problems publicly-funded bodies face is to

place as much of the organisation as possible in the public domain. NICE

holds its board meetings in open session and places all its documents on

its web site as soon as they become available. Talking to the general

public is therefore immediate and truthful, although this raises the

issue of control over information.



The GMC may just be one of the public bodies we love to hate, an easy

target for blame when we are shocked by tragedy. Equally the CHI may

never have a ’sexy’ image, despite its best efforts to improve medical

services on our behalf. However, the fact that both are taking PR

seriously can only bode well for the future representation of the public

health sector.



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