NHS must bridge knowledge gap

From this year patients are getting a choice of hospital – mostly NHS, but at least one private option as well. This has been a long time coming and is no PR gimmick.

Patient choice is at the heart of the agenda to bring the commercial sector values of customer care and transparent costs to healthcare provision. Up to now, the NHS has been both impervious to, and ignorant of, these private sector qualities, but this will have to change – hospitals will only be paid per patient they treat and, with every patient able to choose where they go for treatment, hospitals' income will be dependent on their ability to attract patients.

Three factors usually determine consumer preferences: cost, convenience and reputation.  With the NHS, the cost factor is not an issue –  the service, after all, is free. Convenience, meanwhile, is not most patients' priority when seeking treatment – when it comes to our health, we are largely willing to forego convenience in search
of a quality service. Thus the final factor – reputation – is the clincher. In this respect, NHS comms practitioners have a fair degree of experience; unfortunately, the leaders of the organisations for which they work have yet to embrace PR as vital to their existence.

Assuming that patient choice will be driven by reputation, how can hospitals set out their wares?  How does the patient get access to meaningful, comparable information? What are the reputation factors that will drive choice?

Hospital comms teams are assessing their USPs and how to market these to patients and GPs. They are also working to ensure that consumer expectations will match the reality of healthcare provision in the UK. Private healthcare and big pharma are old hands at this sort of thing, but the NHS and its agencies have never had to sell themselves like this before – those unable to afford private care have previously had to accept the free service on offer: the good, the bad and the ugly.

The temptation might be to throw money at comms, but successful adaptation to the new NHS will be a result of understanding what patients want – what drives patient choice.

And to add to the challenge, comms teams must also ensure that this competition does not tarnish the NHS brand.

Nick Samuels is director of communications at Hammersmith Hospitals NHS Trust

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