Sarah Wrixon, Salix Consulting: Don't wait for the fog to lift

Comms professionals should act now if they want to benefit from radical changes in the NHS.

The proposed radical, pro-market changes in the NHS are throwing up interesting comms challenges. Potential benefits are as yet unproven, there are still disconnects between the many stakeholders and there is a general sense of waiting for the fog to lift. And although health problems haven't gone away, the money to communicate them has, so health messages will come from new sources and may be more subtle - the advocate and nudge approach.

At its best, the NHS remains world class, but as long as there are unacceptable care and safety practices, and increasing pressure on resources, reform is inevitable. The challenge facing the new GP consortia will be to commission services of the highest quality with the best patient outcomes but which are cost-effective.

The notion of an NHS mutual - one that is owned by us all rather than by ministers, civil servants and doctors - will gather momentum. An agenda focused on quality, innovation, productivity and prevention has triggered some radical thinking. Increasingly, minor ailments and long-term conditions will be treated away from the hospital and doctor's surgery. The clinical role of the pharmacist will grow, the use of telephone health services will increase and online interventions will become widespread. Health and social care will integrate further and local authorities will drive public health campaigns to help prevent ill health in the first place.

As the landscape shifts, so will the comms that underpin it. Once primary care trusts have gone, the new consortia will no longer have the luxury of a comms flak jacket and GPs will have to deal directly with the media. New providers and social enterprises will be part of a competitive marketplace for the first time and communicating directly with GP consortia will require a different approach. Successful organisations, whether they are the GP consortia or 'any willing providers', understand the value of engaging the media, their customers, clients and end-users personally, developing trust and mutual respect.

In recent months, our most effective comms strategies have combined media and public relations with personal introductions to the new commissioners. Credible advocacy, personal networking and partnerships are crucial factors in the new comms ecosystem. Developing and maintaining a network like Salix 100 - a broad spectrum of frontline health professionals, clinical leaders, policy makers and advisers, opinion formers, thought leaders and patient representatives - enables us to develop strategy based on insight from the people who are shaping the new landscape and those who will be travelling through it.

The past decade may arguably be remembered as one of discord and dissonance, but things are changing. There is now an outright requirement for healthcare professionals to work collaboratively with health service and medicines providers to drive the positive social change GSK's Phil Thomson describes.

Media relations remain key to raising awareness of an issue or positioning an organisation, but third-party endorsement and collateral knowledge will also be integral to success. Personal advocacy, peer power and one-to-one conversations - the nudge approach - are likely to feel more relevant than the multi-million pound public health campaigns the Government can no longer fund. Comms specialists will have to be nimble to help clients negotiate the misty terrain ahead. Waiting for the fog to lift isn't an option.

Views in brief

- What is the most innovative public health campaign in the past year?

Boris' bike scheme in London supported by Barclays. An innovative, practical scheme with clear health and social benefits and led by a memorable spokesperson. A great example of Big Society with the public and private sectors working with the general public to make a difference.

- How would you fill a five-minute meeting with Andrew Lansley?

I would like to hear his views on end of life. Should people have greater choice over when and how they die and should expensive drugs be used to extend life by weeks if there is not a concurrent improvement in quality of life?

Sarah Wrixon is managing partner at Salix Consulting

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