OPINION: NHS must not shy away from comms

Despite having a turnover equivalent to the whole of Argentina and being at the centre of a heated political debate, the NHS is curiously quiet about what it provides at a local level.

Fewer than four in ten members of the public recall having ever received any communication from their local NHS authority.

It is not that what the NHS does produce is poor quality – 67 per cent say they find what they receive useful. They just don’t remember seeing it. Ipsos Mori’s new survey for the Association of Health Communicators highlights why. Most trusts have fewer than four comms staff.

Bigger councils will have 30 people working on comms, marketing and websites. When it comes to total spend, nearly half of all NHS trusts spend less than £80,000 a year, compared with only 24 per cent of local councils. Councils invest far more: 41 per cent spend more than £200,000, compared with only nine per cent of NHS trusts. This matters.

In local government, there is a clear link between the effectiveness of comms (and also expenditure) and both resident satisfaction and performance, as measured by inspection.

This is also true of the NHS. If one looks at Health Care Commission scores, only 11 per cent of trusts rated ‘excellent’ or ‘good’ on use of resources do not have a marketing strategy, compared with 33 per cent of the ‘fairs’ or ‘weaks’. Better trusts also spend more – 37 per cent of ‘excellent’ or ‘good’ trusts are spending more than £100,000 a year on comms, compared with only 18 per cent of the ‘fairs’ and ‘weaks’.

I am not arguing that spending money on comms will improve inspection scores. But, given that such scores try to report overall performance, it is telling that the best performers in both health and local government invest in ensuring as many people as possible are aware of what is provided and how to access it. They explain clearly why they take decisions, and all the evidence suggests that the public like them better for it.

There will always be managers who believe that money spent on comms is pink and fluffy, especially when services are about life and death.

But by not telling people clearly about services, one is rationing services to those with the sharpest elbows, the best connections and the most time to find out about them.

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