The challenge of NHS comms

It has been a challenging time for NHS communicators yet again over the last few weeks.

Luke Blair: Communicators in the NHS must be honest about budgets
Luke Blair: Communicators in the NHS must be honest about budgets

Barely have newly reorganised teams settled into their newly refurbished offices before the first crisis facing the newly rearranged NHS has got under way.

Headlines screaming of A&E pressures, stricken emergency departments, and patients once again lying on trolleys have returned to haunt our national health service.

The depressing thing about this, quite apart from the pain and discomfort caused to the patients and their families, is that the problem is a circular one.

It comes spinning around just as often as it never seems to be resolved – by better communications or by anything else.

Essentially, the argument goes like this: you need to treat more people away from hospitals and in settings like GP surgeries and elsewhere, because hospitals are too busy to treat everything, and are a very expensive way of delivering treatment in any case.

But you cannot put more into GP surgeries and other communities because hospitals are sucking up too much money.  

This is because they are expensive and too many people are going to them first, because they lack alternatives like more GP appointments, so the situation in hospitals gets worse…and so do GP and other facilities…and so on, and on.

Local leaders, besieged by protests, find themselves caught up in the same whirlpool of arguments and, not surprisingly, listen to what the loudest people say should be done and then offer to do it.

Hospital departments must not close, they cry, and if the NHS goes against this, the legal system is used to bolster their case.

As a direct result of this, in certain parts of the country, various bits of the health system – invariably with a venerable much-loved hospital at their heart – have been trapped in a kind of paralysis for years.

That is not good for patients, or the NHS, or for anyone.

What is to be done, and where can communication play a role?  

The NHS Confederation, whose annual conference was last week, interviewed more than 50 doctors, politicians and health chiefs to try and find the answer.

Their report, Changing care –  improving quality, concluded that better communication should be put at the heart of any programme, with a robust communications strategy properly implemented through multiple channels using multiple tools.

Communication needs, above all, to be 'honest' – saying bluntly that there is not enough money to solve all the NHS’s needs, for example.

'It seems better,' the Confederation said, 'to be open from the start and work to develop trust with the local community through honest conversations.'

And a key part of this honesty must come down to politicians.  They should be able to 'establish a political consensus on clinically-driven change' by joining 'with patients groups, clinicians and managers and highlight the potential benefits of change, where the evidence is strong.'

'Politicians of all colours need to put themselves at the front of the honest conversation with the public,' the report concludes. 

As one MP put it, 'Good politics should be about honesty.' Some might say that if the solution to a problem is more honesty from politicians, the problem will never be solved.

Maybe, but during the hottest spell of the year so far in a heated Commons debate, one Opposition MP made an intervention on the case of his local hospital, earmarked to lose its A&E.

And what he said was this:  ‘This is way beyond a party political issue. This is not about game playing or seeking political advantage for one side of the Chamber or the other…I do not see the Secretary of State as some Gargantua or Godzilla, crashing through Nye Bevan’s glorious creation and seeking to destroy it at every opportunity.  I see him as a man who might be overwhelmed by the scale of the problem facing him.'

I might be an optimist, but I personally see this as a glimmer of light.  If a Labour MP with an A&E department under threat can call, not for a stay of execution, but for political consensus, for recognition that health needs to be dealt with above party politics, then I for one think that is progress.  

And I think the NHS Confederation would agree.


Luke Blair is a director at London Communications Agency.

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