Dan Wood: Health reforms offer opportunity to reform comms

NHS communicators have their hands full. While grappling with the structural changes of the government's reforms, they also need to help deliver £15-20bn of savings over the next few years.

Dan Wood: shifts in hospital services will be seen as cuts
Dan Wood: shifts in hospital services will be seen as cuts

At the time of writing, the government is announcing plans to pause the progress of the Health Bill (until after the local elections, conveniently) for a ‘listening exercise’. But this will offer no respite for NHS comms leads.

Regardless of the state of the public finances, NHS spending cannot continue increasing as it has in previous years. A growing and ageing population, living with more long-term conditions, has meant that the NHS needs massive funding increases every year just to stand still.  

Separate from the government’s reforms, the NHS has been identifying ways to provide services more cost effectively while improving outcomes for patients at the same time. These changes need to be implemented urgently and on a large scale.

The problem for NHS communicators is that, although there are examples of how this can be done, it sounds counter-intuitive. For example, while people can see and feel reassured by their local hospital, they don’t notice the team of community nurses helping patients to enjoy healthier lives at home. Any shift in services from hospitals to the community is perceived as a cut, even though it can result in better health for local people and frees up funding for other services.

With public satisfaction in the NHS at an all-time high, the public don’t see the need for change. And with everything viewed through the current prism of public sector cuts, it is not surprising that any changes to the NHS are perceived the same way and met with fierce resistance.

The challenge is to navigate through all this to develop local narratives that reassure the public, build the support of stakeholders and engage staff. Getting staff on board is crucial as they not only need to make the changes happen, they are also the most effective communications channels the NHS has with its patients and the public.

While the government’s reform plans may feel like an unwelcome distraction, they do offer some potential opportunities that might make the task easier.

Firstly, as GPs become more responsible for the NHS budget and local decision-making, they will need to lead the public debate about change. This puts the voice of clinicians at the heart of the discussion, so often lacking in the past.

With doctors regularly topping the list of the most trusted professions (and ‘bureaucrats’ near the bottom) they can make a big difference to public support. Emerging GP leaders need to be helped to understand their public role and to develop their channels for local engagement.

Secondly, proposals for increasing local authority and councillor involvement through health and well-being boards could help bring local stakeholders together in a partnership based on the joint ownership of problems, rather than a relationship based on scrutiny. This could deliver much more effective engagement with local people and help stem a common source of local opposition to change.

None of this will be easy and there has never been a greater need for senior communications expertise at the top table across the NHS. But, amongst the challenges, there are opportunities to communicate and engage more effectively and to help deliver a better NHS.

Dan Wood is a freelance NHS communications consultant and member of the CIPR’s Local Public Services Group Committee.

The CIPR Health & Medical and Local Public Services Groups are co-hosting an evening for local government and health communicators to meet and discuss public health communications in the new NHS landscape on Thursday 12 May from 6pm at CIPR headquarters. Contact Spink Health for more information, tel. 01444 811099, email sophie@spinkhealth.com.

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