Avoid absolutes in comms about the NHS

British opinions of the NHS are often contradictory. It is our job to use human comms to reach the public.

The public has conflicting views on the NHS, says Sarah Winstone
The public has conflicting views on the NHS, says Sarah Winstone

In comms, we strive for a simple message. The perfect phrase that catches the imagination. That persuades people to a point of view. In the search for simplicity, it is tempting to create absolutes. We choose in or out. There is success or failure. The NHS is the best in the world. The NHS is broken.

When it comes to healthcare, and to our feelings towards the NHS, we are curiously able to hold several contradictory opinions at once. The NHS tops polls of what makes us proud to be British, ahead of our history, monarchy and sense of humour, but we can equally believe it is heading in the wrong direction.

There are different tensions at play that make this uncomfortable state of cognitive dissonance particularly acute when it comes to our views on healthcare. The first is a tension between the logical and the emotional. We know, logically, that ramshackle, inaccessible Victorian buildings may not be the best home for a hospital. We may feel just as strongly that we don’t want our local services to move.

The second tension is the gap between what we experience as individual patients and what we think everyone else receives. We can praise the nurse or doctor who treated us with skill and kindness but think they are the exception, rather than believing that the vast majority of people are also getting great care.

The third tension is between fear and resolve. The demographics of our nation and the increasing health need created by more people living with multiple, complex chronic conditions could make the NHS a bottomless pit for resources. But it is equally the public’s top priority for spending. It is unsustainable and yet it must be sustained.

These are the tensions that are often exploited in the public discourse around the quality of our services and the future of the NHS. And we can expect the narrative around health to become even more intense. This is in part because health is an area where emotions run high. We are never more vulnerable than when we are ill, and our recovery is in someone else’s hands. But it is also because, in effect, we are all communicators now. A few character strokes on social media and our experience – whether positive or negative – can be shared.

Every experience matters. There is nowhere to hide when an error is made – and nor should there be. It is essential we understand and learn from mistakes when they happen – and happen they will, given the fact that the NHS sees a million people every 36 hours. But there is a danger if negative personal experiences become perceived as commonplace and general.

The stakes are high in healthcare. Those of us in healthcare comms have a huge responsibility. We need to advocate for change where it is needed. We need to inspire people that imp­rovement is possible, even necessary, against a backdrop of austerity. We need to blend data and statistics into persuasive business cases, brought to life with human faces. But we need to guard against absolutes.

Because absolutes have the potential to de-humanise. And the compelling story is the human one.

Sarah Winstone is a founding partner at Incisive Health

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