Health tech and NHS IT PR and communications during the Covid-19 crisis – and beyond

The arrival of the novel coronavirus has been shocking and is impacting on all sorts of unexpected areas, including the use of technology in the NHS. Health tech vendors are naturally scrambling to respond.

But amid the chaos, some important changes are being made and some significant trends are emerging that should be positive for the industry in the longer-term.

Against that background, Highland Marketing can provide advice, PR and marketing services that will put companies in a good position to support their health and care customers now and in the future.

It is hard to find positives in the sudden dislocation caused by the spread of the novel coronavirus. As of the middle of this week (18 March), there were confirmed cases of Corvid-19 in 163 countries, with almost 2,000 in the UK, where there have been 71 deaths.

Just two weeks ago, the NHS was being advised to encourage people to use NHS 111 Online to get advice about the disease and to ramp up online booking and remote consultations in primary care. On Tuesday, it was asked to free-up 30,000 beds ahead of the suspension of all non-urgent, elective operations from 15 April.

Away from the NHS, the government has advised businesses to encourage staff to work from home, individuals to avoid travel and public places, and elderly and vulnerable people to ‘self-isolate’ for three months.

Still, amid the shock and the chaos there are, if not positives exactly, some trends and changes that should be positive for health tech companies and the services they work with in the longer-term.

Covid-19 has shown the NHS is behind the curve on tech adoption

Think about those speeches by health and social care secretary Matt Hancock and the leaders of NHSX and NHS Digital at Digital Health Rewired, urging the service to put patient advice, booking and consultation services online. In some ways, the surprising thing about them was that they were necessary.

As many health tech ‘thought leadership’ pieces have pointed out over the past decade, many other aspects of people’s lives, from catching up with the news to booking a holiday to holding a team-meeting, moved online so long ago that they’ve since moved on again to mobile devices.

For a whole host of reasons, health and social care has failed to follow suite, leaving primary care services to scramble as Corvid-19 hit. Yet the consensus is that the changes being made now will lead to a long-term shift in attitudes to ‘digital first’.

Addressing infrastructure barriers

Some things will need to happen to consolidate the shift. Neil Paul, a GP and longstanding columnist, pointed out that his infrastructure and computer kit is not up to the demands of remote consultations.

Infrastructure and kit will need to be upgraded; or the NHS will need to invest in services that promise to be ‘Zoom for healthcare’ (other click-and-go conferencing platforms are available). Health and care services will need ongoing support from companies operating in this space.

Meanwhile, the NHS Long Term Plan talked about reducing physical outpatient appointments by a third. The ‘dear chief executive letter’ that NHS England and NHS Improvement sent about Covid-19 suggested that all diagnostic and outpatient appointments for older and vulnerable people should be run this way. 

“Face to face appointments,” it added, “should only take place when absolutely necessary.” That’s a big shift, not just in technology, but in the assumptions being made about where care should be delivered; out in the community, rather than in hospital.

Sorting out the IG and the structures and the money

To underpin these changes – and to make sure that NHS staff unable to get into their normal place of work can work from home and for services like NHS 111 – NHSX has put out new guidance on information governance and devices.

The advice, backed by the NHS Data Guardian and the Information Commissioner, says that instead of getting bogged down in how they are sharing information, NHS staff should just focus on who they are sharing it with and why. The message: as long as it’s for care, it’ll be ok.

Assuming that clarity is maintained once the Covid-19 crisis is past, there should be a huge boost for integrated care record and population health management projects that up to now have struggled with IG.

The effective suspension of the NHS internal market, and the move to block contracts to pay organisations for work done, could help, too, by cutting through some of the issues around who pays for integrated working – and who benefits from the efficiencies or quality improvements it generates.

Hospitals need tech, too

So, the coronavirus is moving fast, and things are changing with it. Digital first primary care and outpatients have just received a huge boost and are likely here to stay, while a couple of the big obstacles to ICDRs and population health could just have been removed.

And it’s not just these areas that are seeing the potential of health tech. The providers of electronic patient records, nursing observation and bed management solutions, have moved to show how their products can help hospitals to identify patients with Covid-19, put them on appropriate treatment paths, and help clinicians and housekeepers to take appropriate protective measures.

Hospitals that don’t have this kind of technology are left trying to manage these issues on paper. The pandemic may just prove definitively that is not good enough any longer.

In one of the last pieces of ‘business as usual’ before it hit, NHSX announced the first wave of ‘digital aspirant’ trusts, without clarifying where their funding would come from or how they had been chosen. Hopefully, it will provide more detail in time for another wave of fast and effective procurements to follow.

Communicate now

With so much going on, what should the health tech community be doing to communicate with the NHS? For individual businesses, the answer is going to depend on the kind of solution they have to offer, and how their own marketing and communications plans have been impacted by the coronavirus.

Businesses with remote booking and consultation services need to be getting their messages out right now, and Highland Marketing can help by drafting press releases, blogs and thought leadership, plus, where possible, case studies that explain how customers are working with their solutions. We can also advise on how to make best use of these on publication platforms and social media.

Enterprise IT companies that are putting business continuity plans in place and making changes to their systems that will help the NHS to address the crisis in different ways need to communicate these to customers, and Highland Marketing is advising clients on how to do this on a daily basis.

Plan to communicate in the future

Some of the same companies have seen their longer-term communication and marketing plans disrupted by the cancellation of shows and restrictions on face-to-face meetings. Highland Marketing can help with services that extend the reach and impact of events that have moved online, such as live-blogging and live-drawing, or turning video content into written and social media.

We also have an excellent sales acceleration team that is extremely effective on the phone. Of course, we understand that some companies will feel that PR and marketing activity is not appropriate at the moment; or find that customers are not receptive to it.

For vendors in this position, our advice would be to look beyond the immediate crisis, to pay attention to those longer-term trends and changes, and to be ready to play into them when the time is right.

Highland Marketing can help you to review plans and strategies, get your website and social media in good order, and create effective, impactful content for marketing and press distribution. This week, prime minister Boris Johnson compared fighting the coronavirus to fighting a war. But wars end; and it’s while they are going on that it’s time to plan for the peace. 

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Susan Venables

Founder and Client Services Director
Susan takes a fresh approach to marketing and public relations. She established Highland Marketing in 2002 after a long career working with well-known agencies and clients ranging from SMEs to multi-nationals. During the past 20 years she has helped many companies within the technology and healthcare IT sectors to raise brand awareness and reach new potential customers. Susan is respected by clients, getting them and their services noticed when and where it matters, and by the media where she has many long-standing contacts.
“Effective marketing and communications demands a lot of passion, commitment and experience, and that's exactly what we provide for clients. Right from the start I match them with a team of people who each have at least ten years' experience, and who often know what it's like to run their own business. That mixture of maturity and determination is very potent. Clients really notice the difference, especially those who have previously worked with agencies that send in their top people to win an account then hand the actual work to inexperienced junior staff.”
A little about Susan:
  • Champion athlete - During her first year at Durham University she thought she would have a go at rowing. By the third year she was winning national competitions and was later part of the GB women's lightweight rowing squad.
  • Dog lover - Susan developed a love of dogs when she was a little girl in the Warwickshire market town of Southam when the family's pet used to protect her pram. These days she has two black Labradors, and a Samoyed to exercise.
  • No second best - As a child she always had a rebellious streak combined with a determination to excel, especially at sports like hockey, athletics and netball. Those traits carried over into adult life where she found her niche establishing and building her own business rather than following a corporate career path.

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