The handling of last week’s report on oral contraceptives has been
widely criticised as a PR disaster. But, in the circumstances, it is
hard to see how the Department of Health could have handled it better.
Look at the facts. The information in the report was acted on
immediately - the only responsible course of action. To sit on the
original report would have been nothing more than a cover-up.
The first priority was to contact the doctors and pharmacists to whom
anxious patients would turn first for advice. Unfortunately, reaching
190,000 health workers by an combination of letters, phone, fax and
modem is cumbersome and slow. It is impossible to prevent messages
delivered on such a mass scale from reaching the media. It was therefore
a race against time.
Once the media had half the story it would have been utterly
irresponsible not to bring the press briefing forward. To delay it,
would have risked the prospect of a garbled version emerging - worrying
patients even further.
Health secretary Stephen Dorrell has said that the ways of alerting GPs
would be reviewed to see if lessons can be learned. The lesson is that
the speed with which the media can gather and transmit information long
ago outstripped the ability of the NHS to communicate with its staff.
Perhaps in the brave new Internet world conjured up by Tony Blair, such
problems could be avoided. But until then, the health department PR
machine will always be struggling to catch up.