Why communications offers the NHS its greatest lifeline | Sarah Hall

Sarah Hall

Sarah Hall founder of #FuturePRoof and president of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations for 2018 discusses why good communications will be the key to the modern NHS.

#FuturePRoof edition three is a story of an NHS striving hard to modernise as it navigates through the toughest challenges of its lifetime, challenges that can only be overcome if it embraces an honest dialogue with the public.

An aging population with complex heath needs, underfunding, political agendas, privatisation, parochial self-interest, healthcare that doesn’t consistently meet quality standards and questions over the type and location of delivery, are just some of the huge questions its leaders face. There are no easy answers.

Facing the challenges with integrity and transparency

Seventy years after it was first established, the NHS has grown beyond all expectations; a behemoth which comprises a network of organisations, occasionally with competing agendas, but all fighting with one aim: to maintain healthcare that is free at the point of treatment.

Daily life for NHS employees is a juxtaposition of medical and technological innovation within buildings and infrastructure that are in some cases no longer fit for purpose. World class frontline teams of doctors and nurses prop up a system that is creaking at the seams.

There is widespread recognition that the NHS is on a knife edge.

The greatest challenge is not where the money comes from, but how to have an honest conversation with the public about what future healthcare should be and to educate the wider population about the change that is needed and create demand for this to happen.

Public engagement is the most powerful form of advocacy

Professional communications has never been more critical to the future of the NHS. Public relations in its truest sense is needed not just to speak truth to power, but to engage with NHS users who think that an injection of funds will suffice to fix the issues.

Investment alone is not the solution. A much more radical overhaul is urgently required that engages both the workforce and the public.

While the general populace may be wedded to having doctors’ surgeries and hospitals on every corner, this is not where a sustainable future lies.

Instead, technology is already empowering online consultations and self-care within the home setting. Non-urgent treatment is moving from hospitals into the community. Apps are providing better access to healthcare advice focused on prevention rather than cure.

This is the new reality and UK society needs to embrace this.

So what is the role of professional communicators in the NHS?

Those in the communications space offer the NHS its greatest lifeline if they have the courage to speak the truth.

Not just about rising demand versus lack of investment, understaffing, or how the whole system fails if one of its connected services falters (think hospital bed shortages and how patients move - or don’t - through the network) but about the pressing need for change.

Research shows that the NHS remains one of the most trusted institutions in the UK. Much of its credibility comes from the human face of its employees, who interact with the public every day.

With this in mind, perhaps the biggest lesson for its management teams, communicators and the wider public relations community is to embrace transparency, invest in skills and use real people to lead the debate.

For the NHS this means fielding doctors, nurses and others within the care setting to start the discussion about what the future of healthcare holds, what the journey there looks like and the impact for modern society.

It requires taking one approach at scale and talking about the true cost of treatment and the value of the service that the public receives.

Explaining the benefits to a total overhaul of the system, while recognising the challenges this will create, could mobilise an army of vocal supporters prepared to lobby the government for what the NHS needs.

After all, as its founder said: “The NHS will last as long as there are folk with the faith to fight for it.”

Sarah spoke at the NHS Confederation's Communications Conference in June 2018.


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