Health comms: what to expect in 2023

The shadow of COVID-19 continues to loom large, with an independent inquiry underway that may take years to complete. But the ongoing impact of the pandemic is just one challenge facing a sector that is increasingly in the spotlight. PRWeek has canvassed opinion from health comms experts on what to expect in the year ahead.

Clockwise, from top left: Kate Harrison; Daniel Reynolds; Tina Batchelor; Nicky Walsby; Corrina Safeio; Julia Bainbridge; Rachel Carr; James Mole; Jenny Ousbey; Antony Tiernan

Health comms has never been more topical, thanks to a succession of health scares since the pandemic struck in 2020. Monkeypox, antibiotic resistance, Strep A and scarlet fever are just some of the issues to have dominated the news agenda in recent months. It’s an emotive area, plagued by fake news and complicated by various regulatory hurdles facing comms teams.

Finding new ways to engage audiences that may have message fatigue after the pandemic will be crucial, as well as promoting the advances being made in health and demonstrating tangible benefits from comms.

Here’s what health comms experts are predicting for the coming year…

Rachel Carr, director of comms, Department of Health and Social Care

“2023 will be another challenging year with a complex, post-COVID-19 policy agenda to communicate to diverse audiences. It’s vital we stay alive to the way technology is reshaping how we all consume information and continue to look for ways to innovate and drive value across our flagship campaigns. I think more than ever we also need to look after our own people: it’s been a tough couple of years for health and care communicators.”

Corrina Safeio, group managing director, Evoke Mind+Matter

“As we finish 2022 there are interesting tensions; for example, the global need to manage comms on the threat of AMR with antibiotic stewardship, vs urgent headlines that encourage us to go direct to pharmacy to get antibiotics for Strep A… With the appetite for health stories continually increasing, this is also our chance to share the good news, like incredible cell and gene therapy breakthroughs.”

Tina Batchelor, UK director of comms, AstraZeneca

“The last couple of years have highlighted more than ever the value communications adds to an organisation… but we can't rest on our laurels. As budgets face increased scrutiny, communications professionals in-house and in-agency must continue to demonstrate their impact, which at times (historically) has been hard to do. Strong evaluation of activities, beyond just OTS figures, and genuinely targeted activities will be key.”

James Mole, ex-deputy director of comms, NHS England, and a director at Hanover

“The challenge in 2023 will be to get a hearing for anything that is not simply about keeping the NHS afloat, in what will be its landmark 75th year. Service pressures, financial concerns, staff exhaustion and patient safety worries will make it difficult for NHS leaders to have time and energy to focus on new ideas and practical solutions.”

Nicky Walsby, managing director, Syneos Health UK

“Generative AI tools like DALL-E and, most impressively, ChatGPT are exploding and will start creating change in comms in 2023, from smarter working, better deployment of teams and getting faster to what matters. Agency leaders and procurement will no doubt be looking at how generative AI affects margins, billings and productivity.”

Antony Tiernan, director of communications, NHS75, NHS England

“The NHS’ 75th anniversary will be a focal point of the 2023 healthcare calendar. As well as celebrating the hard work and commitment of NHS staff, past and present, it’s an opportunity to inspire more people to work for the NHS. It’s also a time to celebrate the successes and innovations of the past 75 years, and look at exciting opportunities to advance care in the future.”

Kate Harrison, head of health, MHP Group

“2023 will be the year of impact and influence. Impact – with budget questions looming because of market forces, comms and policy programmes will need to dial up their KPIs to demonstrate the impact on corporate and commercial objectives. Influencers – with health experts as likely found on TikTok as in The Lancet, health comms needs to be confident in earned engagement techniques with this new generation of advocates.”

Jenny Ousbey, chief executive and founder, Ovid Health

“This year we rode the reputational coattails of the vaccine roll-out. In 2023 we must find other ways to stand out from the crowd. Whether that’s health inequalities or access to medicines – the cost-of-living crisis will demand ever-more creative and authentic ways to reach patients. Health communications can’t afford to take its foot off the pedal.”

Julia Bainbridge, partner, Freuds, and co-founder, Freuds+

“I feel we have lost a bit of positive momentum when it comes to motivation to protect individual and family health on the back of COVID-19 and it will be interesting to see the extent that the private sector takes the initiative to lean into preventative health at this critical point.”

Daniel Reynolds, director of comms, NHS Confederation

“The NHS is reeling from lengthening waiting lists, public satisfaction at its lowest level for 25 years and a series of damaging strikes. As the NHS turns 75, the central challenge for communicators will be to rebuild public confidence. Its leaders need to set out a compelling vision for how they will recover services and transform care, so that future generations maintain support for the institution.”

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