A winter's tale beckons as NHS bears the brunt of the media

Cold weather is here so expect gale force bad news regarding the NHS. The task of health comms, then, is to help balance the debate.

Sarah Winstone

The temperature drops, Christmas lights go on, and the NHS braces itself.

Winter inevitably places increased demands on already stretched health services. GPs see more people with sore throats, coughs and colds. Acute services expect higher admissions of people with asthma, COPD and heart conditions. The knock-on effects stretch across hospitals, community and social care.

For journalists, a winter crisis is a story waiting to be written. Few in the health service will be able to forget last January’s headlines screaming of a ‘third world’ NHS.

Comms is central to helping the NHS withstand both the reputational and operational hit that winter can cause.

The first thing is to reassure people that robust plans – such as the annual Cold Weather Plan and surveillance programmes – are in place to manage (un)predictable winter demands.

Next is supporting people to do the right thing by signposting them to appropriate forms of self-care or timely medical advice and support.

The third task is to encourage vulnerable groups to make use of flu immunisations. On this last issue a lot more has to be done – the latest uptake figures for 2015 show that the proportion of people in vulnerable groups who have had their recommended flu jabs is slightly lower than in 2014.

So far, so routine. But this year, as the days get shorter, two political battles have reached boiling point.

Firstly, concerning funding. The Spending Review may have delivered more money to health but the finances of this year are still ugly. Deficits are ballooning and the pressure to balance the books is greater than ever. Cuts will come, but the question is at what cost?

Secondly, regarding staffing. The sheer scale of the vote by junior doctors in favour of walk-outs – with backing from senior consultants as well as public sympathy – demonstrated that medics were more than prepared to mutiny. Relationships between healthcare professionals and politicians are now at an all-time low.

Truth be told, this winter was always going to be difficult. But now, every waiting time target or budget breached will be a news story. It is an especially unseasonable mix and it demands carefully nuanced comms. The way the story plays out will shape how the public views the NHS.

Potentially worse, public perceptions of the health of the NHS may shape how people themselves use health services.

The job of health communicators is an important one. Necessary debate about the pressures facing health services will need to be balanced by news about how the NHS continues to deliver for the vast majority of people it services. Otherwise, perceptions of a service unable to cope couldeasily contribute to further pressures at a time when they are least needed.

Winter has arrived and, for the NHS, communications will need to be an essential component of any resilience plan.

Sarah Winstone is a founding partner of Incisive Health

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