Alice Weightman, Hanson Search: New jobs demand new skills

Breadth of experience will be the key to securing the best healthcare comms positions.

Twelve months is a long time in healthcare. A year ago, the UK market for healthcare comms specialists was slowing as a result of the recession, acquisitions and a reduction in the number of drugs pharmas were bringing to market.

Fast-forward to Q1 2011, however, and it is a different story.

The first green shoots of economic recovery, a growing pipeline of new products and the Government's plan to restructure the NHS to offer greater patient choice, have forced organisations sector-wide to reassess their healthcare comms needs.

Confidence is growing among healthcare comms candidates because, after keeping their heads down during the recession, they feel ready for fresh challenges. And demand for comms talent is rising fast.

Employers and candidates must respond to the new healthcare agenda with fresh expectations.

In organisations across the healthcare sector, old assumptions, practices and structures are being challenged. Meanwhile, tighter corporate and product marketing budgets are encouraging them to integrate their healthcare comms more tightly.

The trend is towards aligning comms more closely with marketing and closing the divide between product messaging, market access and public affairs. This is creating fresh challenges for those who want to attract the best comms talent and comms specialists eager to secure the best roles.

It is not that generalists are the future or that specialisms are old hat. The changing nature of an already challenging market requires a strengthening of individuals' skill sets through widened experience. Candidates recognise this and expect prospective employers to do so too.

There is a shortage of comms talent, and organisations must be more open-minded about the candidates they consider and acknowledge the value of broader skills.

At the same time, they must offer the creativity and innovation in their organisations that healthcare candidates now seek. Flexibility is more important than ever in a comms environment dominated by female workers at a time when employers need to retain the best talent at account director level and beyond.

However candidates must also take care to show they have what it takes. Digital comms may be a new field with digital experts hard to find, but an understanding of its growing role in healthcare comms is key. As the NHS refocuses on patient choice and empowerment, employers are looking beyond traditional media platforms with online patient forums and social media growing in importance. An understanding of digital comms is creeping into job specifications.

A desire to learn has become a prerequisite along with a 'have a go' attitude and an ability to adapt to change.

Meanwhile, specialists skills - in medical education, product PR, market access or public affairs - must be supplemented with broader-based experience to secure the best roles in an increasingly challenging and dynamic healthcare sector.

The complex healthcare sector - with its stakeholders, bodies and regulations - has never been an easy world to simply 'slip into' from another industry. The growing desire for a more integrated approach to comms, however, is now paving the way for greater exchange of comms talent from different sectors in healthcare comms.

All of which has to be a good thing for employers and healthcare comms candidates who are best able to show they have the talent and skills for the changing market of 2011 and beyond.

Views in brief

- How will proposed changes to the NHS affect pharma marketing?

Government plans to transfer power away from PCTs into the hands of local GPs mean many in the NHS are now looking for new jobs, and more will follow. A key challenge for public sector comms specialists will be to demonstrate an understanding of commerce. A key challenge for the private sector businesses playing a growing role in public healthcare provision will be understanding just how the NHS really works. Pharma comms will have an increasingly important role to play, and those best able to harness and leverage a range of experience, expertise and skills will be in the driving seat.

Alice Weightman is managing director of Hanson Search

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