Criticising the way NHS money is spent will be an increasingly irresistible task for many politicians and lobby groups in the approach to the general election this year.
It is of course extremely important to hold the feet to the fire of those who control the NHS purse strings and this last year alone has seen plenty of critique.
Just one example came from The Taxpayers’ Alliance, which attacked the £46m that had been spend on 1,129 “unnecessary jobs” in areas such as public relations. Jonathan Isaby, chief executive of the lobby group, even said taxpayers “expect the health budget to be spent on real doctors, not spin doctors”.
But would it be more prudent to ask just what spending on communications has actually achieved and whether these jobs are in fact really unnecessary?
It was a question that certainly struck the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR), which rejected the idea that communications amounted to spin, swiftly defending the healthcare communications role as “life-changing and lifesaving work”.
The CIPR president-elect and former NHS communications director Sarah Pinch at the time highlighted the very important role communication plays around organ donor drives, flu vaccinations and stop smoking campaigns as just a few examples of what it means for supporting public health drives.
Communications could become more important than ever in healthcare, at a time when patients clearly play an unprecedented role in their own care. But at the same time the CIPR now fears a squeeze on NHS communications due to the low value placed on the discipline at senior levels, its isolation from core business strategies, and a lack of understanding of the real impact it can have.
Communications is said to consume 0.1% of the NHS budget. But curtailing investment in this area could have very serious consequences.
We might even ask how far a lack of spending on effective communications has in some cases already led to costly failure. Communication failings in programmes like care.data were very prominent in media stories during 2014. Further to that, how many other headlines around patient safety failings in recent years have been at least in part caused by an inability to see the wider picture?
Effective communication might also help to avoid procurement failings. Those seen in the multi-billion pound National Programme for IT for example, were at least partly blamed over a lack of engagement with staff – a disconnect between the user and the policy maker.
And what about a disconnect with patients? How many people will visit A&E this winter because they don’t know about their local walk in centre, or because they aren’t aware of self-help resources that they could access from the comfort of their own home?
The NHS also now expects patients to take much greater charge of their own care, something that sits at the heart of NHS England plans and that will be fundamental to the sustainability and survivability of the health service moving forward. Healthcare organisations have a responsibility to communicate with those patients more effectively about their choices and their care, if their involvement is to have any chance in reality.
What is more, as one of the largest employers anywhere in the world, the NHS employs many thousands of remarkable people, who have many remarkable ideas. But are these ideas shared or do they remain in isolation in a single hospital or even a single ward? The fantastic things done in GP surgeries, in hospitals, in the community and in any of our healthcare settings need to be shouted from the rooftop, so that other parts of the health service can sit up and listen, take note and create the same successes for their own patients.
Even within a trust effective communication must take place to ensure the potential of investments are maximised. For example, what is the point spending millions of pounds on a new IT system that can help clinicians save lives if staff aren’t aware what it can do for them?
But the burden cannot be placed on NHS communications teams alone, many of whom are extremely busy fulfilling the many proactive and reactive demands placed on communications. Many suppliers are now taking their responsibility very seriously to support NHS customers by communicating the impact of their work.
In many instances the work of private sector companies helps the NHS to achieve great things for patients. In the technology environment for example, solutions that companies provide can enable anything from joining up the patient’s journey to achieve seamless, safer care, through to helping doctors and nurses use information to spot serious conditions and save lives.
Companies ranging from market leaders to SMEs are engaging in PR and communications activity to communicate this work, with the aim of scaling it more widely across the health service and sharing the potential of innovative projects that are increasingly delivered in collaboration between frontline NHS staff and the supplier. This mutually beneficial supportive measure from companies must continue into the future and arguably increase, especially as technologies in healthcare become ever more patient facing.
There are a huge range of reasons why communication is so central to achieving effective healthcare. The NHS needs the resources, both internal and external, to enable this. And so is PR and communications in healthcare a waste of money? Definitely not.