'We have to build from the bottom up' - how healthcare comms can win the talent war

The severity of the talent crisis in healthcare comms has spiked, with pressure at all levels of seniority – but industry experts believe a shift in approach now could win the war in the long-term.

Ask any healthcare comms professional to describe the challenges facing them in 2022 and the talent crisis is always high on the list. 

Existing issues around a shortage of people entering the highly-specialised talent pool and making their way up the ranks have been compounded by COVID-19, as workloads have increased and working from home has affected the cultural differentiators that could typically attract and retain staff. 

Counteroffers are rife, resulting in salary inflation and the potential to ‘dilute’ talent – while healthcare comms pros report regular approaches about recruitment opportunities. 

The talent challenge “feels harder every year”, affirms Nicky Walsby, managing director of Syneos Health UK PR.

“Recruiting great talent in healthcare comms has been a challenge for as long as I remember - it’s a candidate-driven market, with fierce competition for the best talent,” she says. 

“The typically difficult levels to recruit for tend to begin at SAM [senior account manager] and persist up to the director level, where individuals often consider freelancing or going in-house.

“The recent boom in the healthcare industry has presented more opportunities than ever to step down either of those routes rather than remain on the traditional agency path.” 

Salary inflation 

Latest research from executive recruitment firm Hanson Search has found pay packets have grown 10 to 20 per cent in the past year, with a typical maximum salary for a SAM rising from £48,000 to £52,000 and an associate director from £80,000 to £92,000. 

Despite this, the firm’s recent Future of the Workplace survey found culture and people ranked as the most important requirement when making a move, followed by flexibility – with 53 per cent of candidates accepting an offer based entirely on flexibility practices – and then remuneration. 

“We are in an era where flexible working is a given for most people,” says Amy Hayer, global head of healthcare at Hanson Search. 

“There is this absolute desperation for talent so counter offers are rife and it seems to be a bidding war for a lot of people. 

“But the counter offer culture is starting to dilute talent within the industry because employees are being promoted so quickly but haven’t had the period of their careers where they’ve experienced the necessary growing pains. 

“This is putting even more pressure on senior leaders because they haven’t got the support from people with the appropriate level of experience.” 

Hayer believes the crisis could be helped through action to bring in employees from outside the industry, in a concept she calls “parallel people”. 

“We need to upskill these mid to senior-level people in healthcare comms through skills immersion and training programmes,” she adds, pointing out those already working in health tech or in consumer PR areas such as health and wellbeing would be a good fit. 

Upskill non-healthcare comms talent 

For Vicki Martin, healthcare director at 3 Monkeys Zeno, it’s “vital to consider investment in recruitment at different levels”.

“This means looking beyond the grad pool and more towards senior hires that bring extensive and expansive experience, knowledge and maturity,” she says. 

“This will need a financial commitment of on-the-job investment to allow individuals to up-speed and learn within the boundaries of our industry, but it will also give us immediate and much-needed senior talent.”  

Attracting those with transferable skills into the industry is an approach the Healthcare Communications Association agrees could help tackle the crisis – and it has launched a dedicated website HealthComms.Careers to promote the sector as a career. 

The site is one of the HCA’s initiatives to “raise awareness of healthcare comms as a career choice targeting those with transferable skills from other sectors such as scientific research, or communications, particularly if they have a science background”, explains chief executive Mike Dixon.

“It would be fantastic if we could give a new career opportunity to anybody with those skills for example, whose jobs have been affected by the pandemic or the economic impact of other world events,” he adds.

However, he points out that in “the longer term, the solution would be to invest in developing more entry talent now”. 

“But this investment has to be weighed against the cost pressures already facing [agencies]; rising salaries due to the people shortage, combined with downward fee rate pressure from their clients,” cautions Dixon.

“To really solve this challenge for the longer term, all stakeholders need to recognise these dynamics and the implications on them, then try and work together in a more sustainable way.”

The phenomenon is not limited to the UK – with agencies globally reporting that demand for specialist healthcare comms talent outstrips talent

According to Rikki Jones, APAC president for GCI Health, the issue is even more acute in Asia, where “until recently the industry hasn’t been as much of an established niche as it has in other regions”. 

Tackling a lack of knowledge of healthcare comms as a career option is important to the firm, which partners with universities to promote the sector, and Jones hopes it can be part of an “upstream solution”. 

Virgo Health managing director Sarah Gordon believes the increased focus on healthcare following the pandemic could be a catalyst for attracting new talent into the sector. 

“As a specialist industry there has always been a lack of awareness of healthcare communications as a career option, but the pandemic has shone a light on our purpose and our work, giving us a real opportunity to appeal to people beyond the existing talent pool,” she says.

“As an industry, we should capitalise on this moment to build awareness and even run industry-wide schemes to ensure potential candidates are aware of the important role we play.

“Many science students may not realise this creative career option, that uses their science, is available to them. We must ensure it’s on their radar and look at how we can inspire school leavers too.”

Tapping into non-traditional talent can help increase the pool, with some organisations recognising an innovative approach is needed.

In the US, FCB Health recently launched a new programme – in addition to its existing internship scheme – focused specifically on training high-science copywriters. 

Open to career changers, and those re-entering the workplace after a break, as well as students and entry-level participants, the Write It Forward programme runs over 12 weeks with the aim of employing participants at the end.

Diversify recruitment 

Meanwhile, the Creative Access network in the UK matches employers from the creative industries with people from under-represented communities in meaningful paid internships and other roles. 

One of the latest firms to get on board is Publicis Health, which has launched its first Early Careers scheme to begin in July, offering successful applicants up to £30,000 for a full-time, permanent role in advertising, medical comms or PR with 18 months of supported development and training. 

Open to all, including school leavers, graduates, those having completed an apprenticeship, or career changers, the focus is “learning on the job” while participants “discover the power of health communications and see how your work can make a real difference to people’s lives”, states Publicis Health.

“There’s huge potential in schemes that give people exposure, a chance to learn from the existing talent and the reward is consistently seen on both sides of the relationship,” points out Syneos Health’s Walsby. 

“Upskilling new starters shouldn’t be seen as a heavy lift, it’s the only way to reduce the pressure on a small industry with a huge demand for new faces.” 

For Diane Wass, managing director at JPA Health and originally an academic DPhil research scientist, the wider current global situation is something that must be taken into consideration alongside agency-level issues. 

“Now in the ‘Living with COVID’ era and with recent events in Ukraine, we have an escalating economic crisis and rising costs of energy and living, which means that more junior people are struggling to meet the living costs in major cities like London,” she warns. 

“We, therefore, need to re-calibrate starting level salaries or consider new locations and/or models of working to support our people.

“This may have a knock-on effect on rates for clients, but it is the right thing to do. 

“Additionally, through creating training opportunities and remaining open-minded about both transferable and new skills for those who want to move from their industries or take up healthcare comms as a career such as through apprentice schemes, we have great potential to unlock fresh-thinking.

“This will not only re-invigorate the next generation of healthcare comms professionals, but also scale up our skill-base through greater diversity of thought and bringing in new capabilities.”

The HCA’s Dixon adds that as a sector, it is crucial to “broaden our thinking in terms of the ‘pool’ where we look for talent”.  

“We need to be thinking beyond the red brick universities and even be thinking beyond graduates, perhaps through schemes like apprenticeships,” he says. 

“In our recruitment we need to consider working in partnership with organisations supporting social mobility and those helping ensure employment opportunities for black, Asian and minority ethnic individuals and those with a disability, to ensure our sector is open to everybody. 

“Hopefully, bringing more diversity into our sector will also help us better communicate with the communities that healthcare as a whole needs to engage more effectively.”  

Finding ways to attract a more diverse pool of people into healthcare comms needs to be addressed, agrees 3 Monkeys Zeno’s Martin. 

“As an industry, we should address where we source our talent from together and look beyond what has been normal to date,” she says. 

“This could include more in the way of sponsored internships, writing inclusive job descriptions, ensuring diverse interviewer panels, and offering solid commitments to development, as well as simply spending the time on thoroughly briefing recruiters on the real talent needs, and then opening our investment attitudes to diverse team additions.” 

Agency differentiation 

Holly Haynes is the healthcare comms and consultancy team leader at specialist recruiter Zenopa and says that while "the industry has always been candidate-driven", the issues in healthcare PR and medical writing in particular have got a "lot worse since COVID-19". 

Agencies need to find a way to differentiate themselves in an increasingly competitive employment market, or they could find it difficult to attract and retain talent, warns Haynes. 

That could range from their DE&I practices, to whether they have been accredited as a great place to work, their awards achievements and ambitions and ensuring they have industry-leading enhanced benefits packages.

The talent crisis has become so bad that Haynes says, at times, it feels “soul-destroying when we are unable to help our clients the way we want to”.

“When someone hands me a senior PR role to fill, my heart drops because I feel I am being set up to fail before I have even started and I desperately want to help my clients,” she reveals.

“It is the same with senior and principal medical writers as well.” 

While the issue is most critical at a more senior level, Haynes agrees more needs to be done to attract candidates at the start of their careers – starting with considering those without a life sciences degree, for example.

“We have to start building from the bottom up, otherwise things are going to get a lot worse,” she predicts. 

“I honestly think the only way the industry can support itself is to start filling the funnel from the bottom.”

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