OPINION: The NHS must learn from Maidstone error

The Maidstone hospital scandal offers stark lessons for the NHS and should mark a turning point in its communications approach.

Aitken: head of communications, Westminster City Council
Aitken: head of communications, Westminster City Council

To meet the challenge of critical politicians and a concerned public, the health service needs to focus on public health and utilising the communications resources of local authorities.

The NHS is keen to explain how policies are getting through on the ground and has a range of tried and tested tactics to do this. But ministerial visits to open new hospitals appear to do little to dent public scepticism.

A national service cannot meet the information needs of local communities, and is by definition responding rather than leading the debate. Much of the work of the health service is about curing people who are ill, so the news value is in when this doesn’t happen rather than when it is regularly delivered.

We need a different approach – campaigning for health rather than talking about resources. The health service has a number of challenges, from basic hygiene through to obesity and cancer prevention. Creative and sustained communic-ations campaigns should focus more on campaigning for better health than trumpeting achievements in terms of new buildings.

The NHS is delivering some of these campaigns but they are often inadequately resourced and poorly targeted without local knowledge. Putting leaflets in GP surgeries really does not amount to a campaign.

Councils could help take on this challenge of improving the delivery of these campaigns. They have skilled teams and their role in care services and providing leisure facilities make it the perfect partner for this work.

Too often the primary care trust and the local authority don’t talk, partly because the focus for the past five years has been working with the other main public service partner, the police, to fight crime and provide public reassurance. It is time to redress this balance.

Local authorities should run public health campaigns using the knowledge of the local hospital and the communication skills of the council to get people into a position where they are less likely to go into hospital.

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