At a session exploring the relationship between the NHS and the media, delegates and panel members highlighted a point about reconfigurations made yesterday by NHS Confederation chief executive Mike Farrar. He said the decision to take footballer Fabrice Muamba to the best hospital rather than the closest, was a decision that saved his life.
This they felt will be even more important in the context of reconfigurations, and that the NHS should make use of these stories as a powerful way to inform the public about treatment in specialist centres that may be located further away than their local hospital.
‘Secretive and closed’ or just ‘defensive’?
The session was chaired by Cathy Newman, Channel Four News presenter, with a panel including Branwen Jeffreys, BBC health editor, Martin Barrow, The Times health editor and Ingrid Kelly, deputy editor of Panorama. Journalists reported feeling "besieged" by national health stories - up to 30 a day - emanating from the busy health and social care sector and from a range of sources, from medical journals to individual NHS organisations. With a wealth of data available too, not all of it comparable across the different counties of the UK, the NHS was labelled "closed" and "secretive."
This theme was developed further by the panel. Rather than simply secretive or closed, the panel remarked it might be better to refer to the NHS as too “defensive”, as the NHS receives a great deal of good coverage. It is understandable, but not entirely fair, to concentrate on the negative stories.
Furthermore, the public are much more willing to give the NHS the benefit of the doubt because it is such a well-respected service.
Good and bad
One journalist cited an example of a man recovering from severe head injuries as an example of the good and the bad of the NHS. He had a terrible accident and his life was saved by the NHS. However, after his operations, his life fell apart and he suffered a breakdown.
Another example cited was of hospitals performing transplants, where many people were worried that the press were eager to ‘catch out’ those people receiving and providing those services.
Panellists pointed out that it is really important to remember that journalists are also patients who believe in the NHS and they want to see services improve too, not ’catch people out’.
Undercover reporting not done ‘on the hoof’
On documentary and investigative journalism, journalists said they will work with and without NHS organisations. Even with a longer format, it can be difficult to cover complicated health stories. However, undercover work is not done "willy-nilly."
At the BBC for example, permission to film undercover will only be granted if there is prima facie evidence of wrongdoing. In some cases, producers often worry that this means they will miss properly uncovering the story. All whistleblowers are spoken to at length and given an opportunity to fully exhaust internal complaint procedures.
Some whistleblowers, they remarked, even remain in touch with the shows for some time, such is the strong bond between the TV producers and the whistleblower.
Informing the public
During the discussion, one primary care trust (PCT) chief executive felt it important to try to get across to the public, via the media, that commissioners are "not just there to say no." Commissioning organisations themselves contain a range of views about what money should be spent on.
Much of the later debate focused on the quality of communications from the NHS. One participant said it would be unthinkable for a half billion pound organisation in another sector of the economy to have a press office of just three people, saying the NHS needs to prioritise communications.
The panellists also felt that while a focus on communications is welcome, this can be taken too far. Too much media training can make otherwise passionate and interesting people sound like they talk in soundbites and appear robotic.
NHS Confederation annual conference and exhibition
'Does the NHS get the press it deserves?' was one of over 50 breakout sessions taking place at this year's annual conference and exhibition 2012 in Manchester. To find out more about the conference and watch videos of the main speakers, visit the conference website.