The NHS comms gap: don't make promises about tech that the service might not be able to keep

As the NHS faces unprecedented challenges, it's more important than ever to effectively communicate the ongoing modernisation of its tech systems.

Patient care must be at the heart of the message, says Hotwire's Martin Sparey
Patient care must be at the heart of the message, says Hotwire's Martin Sparey

From an ageing population to budget restraints, the NHS is under growing pressure to deliver better care for more people more efficiently. Working against the backdrop of a decade of austerity, economic uncertainty and a requirement to cut waiting times, comms have never played a more critical role. 

Today we expect everything at the touch of a button. 

We assume we shouldn’t have to speak to someone – or, worse, be put on hold – just to book a GP appointment. Digital banks like Monzo and Revolut have enabled us to summarise our spending, freeze cards if necessary or even switch energy providers in seconds. We can see where our Uber is and update drivers as to our movements in real-time before jumping into a cab.

Yet we can’t easily share our location when in communication with the emergency services – except for frantically looking around for points of interest and doing the best we can in a potentially highly charged situation.

There are multiple reasons for this. 

The NHS has inherited a fragmented and closed technology structure, built over decades since its inception in 1948. Handwritten records. Archaic operating systems. A shortage of skills. Multiple reforms have attempted to address these deep-rooted issues, with successes typically only achieved at a trust or practice – rather than national – level.  

Communicating this complicated and convoluted environment to the wider public isn’t a simple task. We all assume progress will be fast, especially when it comes to our health.

But using language like the promise of a "tech revolution" – as Health Secretary (at the time of writing) Matt Hancock pledged in a tech 'vision' issued last October – can be damaging when public expectations are on a different planet. 

An analysis of online press coverage in the past 12 months focused on the NHS and including Hancock reveals more than 5,000 mentions of "technology". This is more than mentions of waiting times and A&E put together – demonstrating the emphasis he's placing on this digital message.  

Yet if the NHS wants to bridge the comms gap between patient expectations and delivery, those creating its messaging must be wary of making promises it might not be able to keep. 

Yes, upgrading from paper to digital records is an internal revolution when the baseline is a reliance on such an archaic legacy system – but don’t assume the public will see it that way. We won’t necessarily understand why developing open systems that talk to each other is a step change from where the NHS is today. Most of us, especially younger people, won’t comprehend why this wasn’t the status quo from the get-go.  

The NHS is still one of the UK’s most trusted and cherished organisations. If it wants to retain this position, its comms strategy will play a key role. While communicating its efforts to modernise digital services is important, managing expectations around this development should be a key component
of its approach – with patient care at the heart of the message. 

Martin Sparey is senior programme director at Hotwire

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