Helen McCallum: Why NHS coverage is always political

Current media coverage of the NHS has strong echoes of 1996, when disillusionment with John Major’s government was perhaps at its greatest. Yes, the service’s finances are in crisis and it is struggling with outraged staff, MRSA and neglected elderly patients – but much of the negative reporting has been triggered by the state of the political party in charge of the NHS.

Coverage of the NHS is always political – and the opprobrium heaped on it is more a reflection of the political temperature than the NHS itself.

What are the service’s PROs to do, faced with such relentless scrutiny? Media tracking of national NHS coverage, and research into recall, strongly indicate that announcements of cash injections are the only surefire winners when it comes to encouraging positive perception.

But even big-spending governments such as this one cannot go on injecting funds simply to address perception issues.

Meanwhile, energetic promotion of good-news stories and medical advances may be making some headway at a local level, but such activity cuts little ice nationally. And even good news can have negative consequences. For example, encouraging the perception that miracle cures are available – when the treatments suit only limited numbers of people and are prohibitively expensive – only leads to disappointment.

Highlighting increases in life expectancy, drawing comparisons with ‘less fair’ healthcare systems around the world, and appealing to the British sense that the NHS is part of our heritage have all failed to counter negative perceptions.

The NHS must stress that the standards of its care do not follow a seven to ten-year cycle – it is our patience with politicians that follows this pattern. And it should recognise negative reporting on the NHS for what it is – a stick with which to beat the Government.

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