Winning hearts and minds in the fight against NHS fraud

To offer good news about the NHS to the media is like offering tofu to a tiger. Your chances of success are very small unless you lace that wholesome good news with something more, well, meaty.

Offer meat as well as vegetables to the media if you want them to take an interest in NHS fraud, advises James Robertson
Offer meat as well as vegetables to the media if you want them to take an interest in NHS fraud, advises James Robertson

The genuine good news is that the fight against NHS fraud is stepping up a gear, with the launch of the organisation I work for - the NHS Counter Fraud Authority (NHSCFA).

The "bad" news, without which I don’t think the media would have taken a blind bit of notice of the dish on offer, is the shocking scale of the problem: £1.25 billion is NHSCFA’s initial estimate of how much was siphoned from the NHS and the wider public health service by fraudsters in 2015/16 alone.

Pressed by the BBC about whether this rough figure could get any worse, our interim CEO Sue Frith gave the honest answer: it may well be higher, and that is why we are working so hard to refine our intelligence picture.

There are gaps in our understanding of fraud – we don’t claim to know it all – and we are reaching out for help to fill those gaps.

So our communications challenge is to raise awareness of fraud, bribery and corruption against the NHS to a huge range of audiences: the general public and taxpayers, patients, NHS clinicians and other workers, contractors and suppliers, opinion leaders…the list goes on.

Raising awareness requires us to explain what fraud looks like in lots of different NHS environments.

At the weekend I was chatting by chance to an NHS paediatrician. He recalled some general pointers about fraud in his induction pack years ago – but had trouble thinking of a single example of where fraud might, even theoretically, occur in his particular hospital. He was happy to give it some further thought, but understandably, was kept rather busy saving lives.

The next comms challenge is to convert the raised collective awareness and vigilance into positive action: increased reporting of any suspicion of fraud.

Our fraud and corruption reporting line is ready and waiting (phone calls are handled by our partners at the Crimestoppers charity, while we directly monitor the online reporting tool).

Both allow people to report anonymously and increased reporting leads to better intelligence and better targeting of our fraud prevention efforts, and to successful prosecutions.

Yes, you guessed it - the grim tales of successful prosecutions of NHS fraud are more appetising to most journalists than our successful interventions to prevent fraud in the first place.

We work proactively with the media to get this deterrent message out to other would-be fraudsters.

The more serious criminals make cool-headed, cost-benefit calculations about whether to commit a fraud against the NHS, and are convinced by evidence they will be caught, not idle threats.

Media relations is my speciality, but it is only one piece of the comms jigsaw for the NHS Counter Fraud Authority.

Colleagues are striving to improve the impact of our publicity through many channels including our new website, social media and stakeholder relations. Images and video, as well as words, are proving to be important persuaders.

I’d welcome readers of this bulletin, including anyone working in health comms, to get in touch with me and help us cascade the counter fraud message to professional bodies and networks, specialist newsletters, conferences - whoever you think we need to talk to.

This is a collective responsibility.

James Robertson is senior media relations officer at the NHS Counter Fraud Authority


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