Marika Freris, Galliard: Finding the health advocates

Patients are as likely to trust the opinion of someone with the same condition as they are their GP

The ability of NHS staff and patients to make better informed choices about care is central to the vision set out by Lord Darzi in his Next Stage Review final report, High Quality Care for All.

This calls for clear, transparent communication and information to be placed where healthcare professionals and patients can access it quickly and easily. While Lord Darzi’s report calls for personalised healthcare, we are calling for personalised communications.

It is easy to think of audiences as homogeneous groups. It often seems like the only way to realistically settle on an agreed set of messages and an approach to communications. But only when you start thinking of audiences in a more individual way can you build a realistic view of their true influence and develop a strategy that takes into account not only commercial, but also emotional, cognitive and social factors.

This is particularly critical in healthcare communications, where the experiences of members of the audience will often be coloured by complex emotions, views and prejudices.

Health is relevant to all people, so every man, woman and child is a stakeholder. All of our audiences – be it consumer, patient, healthcare professional, public representative or politician – are interlinked and sit within a complex web of relationships. The secret is to understand how the different groups interact and overlap, and to identify people who sit at the interface and can help to access a number of groups.

Personalised communications is all about understanding what motivates and moves audiences and engaging them in a transparent and genuine manner. Customers at all levels want to know about ‘people like me’ and a patient is as likely to give credence to the opinion of someone with the same condition as they are to their GP. Patients no longer play a passive role in the consultation, but arrive armed with print-outs, opinions and a self-diagnosis. Physicians also carefully select which information they engage with in an increasingly pressurised and information- rich environment, keeping up to date with the latest research while keeping an eye on what their patients are reading and listening to.

Relationships are at the heart of personalised communications and the cornerstone of relationships is the development of trust. Trust is one of the most important attributes in healthcare communications and the only way to build it is to understand your audience and participate in an open, interactive and personal way.

However, how do we reconcile the need for personalised communications with what digital comms now offers? Ad hoc communities around companies, conditions, products and issues are formed and reformed continually, and this is impacting the healthcare sector as much as any other. How do we reach individual GPs, secondary care physicians and journalists?

We know that the most effective way of generating interest from journalists is to appeal to each with a specific, tailored story; we know that GPs access information through routes specific to them and their needs, some online but many others through print, meetings or peer-to-peer exchanges. For specialists, publications in peer-reviewed journals and scientific/clinical exchanges at congresses and meetings are still the key information channels. But it is relationships between people that still carry most influence and impact.

The communications landscape is changing and the needs and expectations of a public hungry for healthcare solutions are constantly shifting. In such an environment, personalised communications hold the key and it is an area we cannot afford to ignore.

Views in brief
You’re in charge of the NHS for the day. What one change would you make?
Parity across the UK for drugs access and treatment standards.

Tell us about an unsung hero in healthcare
The research scientist. He or she innovates, creates, thinks and is responsible
for driving advances in medicine, but is poorly paid and gets little recognition.

What did you learn from the most challenging healthcare comms task in
which you have been involved?

That patience is a virtue.

Marika Freris is managing director of Galliard Healthcare Communications

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