OPINION: Win over medics not the media

The Department of Health (DoH) is more experienced than most at weathering media crises. But the controversy over the medical training appointment system for junior doctors poses another, potentially longer-term, threat to the NHS.

It’s perhaps inevitable that the human interest stories of junior doctors whose lives have been turned upside down by the new system have dominated the media. The fact that nine out of 10 doctors got their first choice training place certainly hasn’t had much of an airing.

But it’s not the immediate headlines that should cause the greatest concern

Most service organisations, be they high street banks or healthcare providers, understand that excellent marketing can be undermined by poor customer service and disaffected staff. That’s why staff must feel able to buy in to the brand values you want to promote to your customers and stakeholders. As one of the largest employers in Europe with around 1.3 million staff, this is particularly true for the NHS.

So it’s unfortunate that while the DoH’s slogan for its NHS reform programme has been ‘Fair for all, personal to you’, its modernised training system has been portrayed as an inequitable, depersonalised and bureaucratic nightmare.

Nevertheless, the DoH recognises the importance of winning the hearts and minds of its staff if it is to achieve wider public support for NHS reforms. It knows that it is doctors and other medical professionals the public trusts, not politicians and NHS managers. That’s why it has, in recent months, wheeled out the medical ‘tsars’ to make the case for reform. Generally, it has been a successful strategy that has led to some remarkably even-handed coverage for traditional political hot potatoes such as closing A&E departments. But a review of recent press releases reveals that Government ministers rather than senior medics have been used to front this story.

‘Too little, too late’ was the response of one disaffected junior doctor on the BBC’s Question Time when Patricia Hewitt promised a review of the system. This is a view echoed by senior consultants. It is this erosion of trust felt by a key staff group that is a greater threat to the NHS brand than the negative headlines.

Jenny Grey is MD of communications and public reporting, the Audit Commission

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