The news this week that the NHS organisation responsible for
communicating best practice procedure has itself sought PR help might
alarm some. But with the outgoing president of the General Medical
Council Sir Donald Irvine last week saying that patient demands are
increasingly as exacting as those of consumers generally, the
appointment of a PR agency to propagate medical excellence seems
Healthcare professionals have welcomed the news that the National
Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) - overseen by chairman Sir
Michael Rawlins - is to undertake a complete review of comms.
NICE has appointed Citigate Westminster and its sister research agency
Citigate DVL Smith, on two separate contracts worth around £150,000. The contracts were won in separate pitches against GCI and Hill
& Knowlton, and Shire Hall and Cohn & Wolfe, respectively.
Between them the agencies are being asked to undertake a complete comms
review, with the strategic aim of helping the organisation better fulfil
NICE's job is to keep health professionals up to date with the latest
developments in their fields. The organisation was set up in 1999, to
introduce standardisation against a background of concern over 'postcode
Specifically, its job is to distribute information of two sorts:
appraisal of specific technologies such as drugs, devices and
procedures; and clinical guidelines on best practice for treating
specific conditions. It is also charged with promoting the clinical
audit concept within the NHS.
The organisation has grown from two people when it started to around 30
today and as the commensurate increase in activity continues next year
there will be an increase in the rate at which it needs to communicate
guidelines from once a fortnight to twice a week.
NICE says this increase in activity is the trigger for the appointments,
but insists the body has reached a good point to conduct such a
The largest part of the work will be a consultation exercise to
ascertain the success of the organisation's comms strategy so far.
Citigate DVL Smith will carry out this research among a cross-section of
The agency will report to Phil Ranson, hired last month as
communications executive for dissemination. He says: 'We need to get out
there among the key stakeholder groups and find out about their
perception of the way we disseminate guidance.'
The work involves quantitative research among 15,000 stakeholders, and
qualitative research among a smaller audience of 30. Among these will be
GPs, NHS management, nurses, hospital doctors, and other primary and
secondary care professionals that make up the organisation's
Ranson says the review is crucial: 'What we know is that our current
strategy is unsustainable. It has created financial pressure as well as
workload pressure. The task is to ensure we effectively disseminate
guidance to everyone and they receive it in a useful format when they
need it,' he says.
'We need to ensure the guidance we publish has the best chance of being
implemented. The more effective the dissemination, the better the chance
of implementation,' he adds.
Currently the organisation uses a lot of paper-based dissemination
techniques, primarily a major direct mail operation. There is also a
website, and the organisation uses other electronic communication
opportunities such as GPs' Prodigy software and the NHS Direct telephone
The signs are that NICE's comms procedures are to be updated. Citigate
Westminster MD Adrian Roxan says: 'There are signs of good practice but
we are finding areas where we can improve things. A lot of material is
published and, in some cases, there may be a better way to do things
At the same time as Ranson's appointment and the review of what is
effectively its B2B strategy, NICE launched a review of corporate comms.
PRO Louise Fish will oversee the work of Citigate Westminster on this
contract, which will account for £50,000 of the total £140,000 budget.
NICE has always had a small corporate affairs function, as Fish says the
organisation recognised from the start the importance of publicising its
work: 'Crucially, we need to ensure organisations know how to get
involved,' she says.
Citigate will review this work and provide PR support for two specific
projects - the launch of six national collaborating centres and newly
revised processes for developing technology appraisals.
There will be both an internal comms audit and a media audit. Possibly
more important, is the general advice Citigate can offer NICE, whose
work has not always been well-received by its target audiences.
The pharma industry, for example, which has suffered with products not
meeting with NICE approval, has been critical. A spokesperson for the
Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry says: 'We have had a
dialogue with them since inception and we disagree with a couple of
their decisions and have concerns about their role.'
Pharma giant AstraZeneca corporate comms manager Anna Isaacs adds: 'It
is heartening to see communications being taken seriously, but their
communications could be more consistent.'
Even patient groups such as the MS Society, which is dissatisfied with
the organisation's recent work on the MS drug Betainterferon, have
Part of Citigate Westminster's brief will be to counter such attacks
with positive messages about what the body does: 'Ultimately they would
position themselves as an organisation that people might not always
agree with, but cannot fault their process - that is part of our job,'
says Roxan. It sounds like a PR job after all.