OPINION: NHS needs to up its comms spend

Take two public sector organisations providing local services, both with a turnover of, say, £800m. One of them employs around 30 people looking after its communications and campaigns with residents, its website and so on...

Ben Page:  managing director, Ipsos MORI
Ben Page: managing director, Ipsos MORI

The other employs two or three people, and wonders why no one listens to it or even knows much about it, relying instead on what they read in the press.

What’s the difference between these two organisations? Simple. The one that doesn’t invest in communications will nearly always be an NHS trust, rather than a local authority.

In the NHS, there is almost a sense of guilt surrounding investment in comms, as though doing so is taking money away from patient care.But in local government, which provides care to the elderly and education services, the evidence is clear: councils that perform best on value for money and overall performance (according to the Audit Commission) also tend to spend a bit more, and be more effective at communicating with their residents.

Of those councils rated as three or four star, more than 30 per cent are spending at least £750,000 a year on comms. By contrast, only eight per cent of the worst performers spend this much.

Of course, money does not always equate to good communications. There are plenty of local authorities that produce just four residents’ newsletter a year. They do rather better at keeping people informed than some authorities that issue them monthly.

The cross-party Local Government Association is now urging every local authority in England to send all residents a guide to the different services it provides, and to invest in regular newsletters to residents.

Given that the NHS budget is equal to the GDP of Argentina, it is surprising that the public has only a vague idea about the range of services the NHS has to offer – to many it is simply their GP and their local hospital.

At a time when the health service is striving to become more local, more user-led, and based more around the primary-care sector than the acute, it will need to invest considerably more in getting the public to understand what it is doing – and what people can do to stay healthy.

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