Preachy or positive: messages of NHS waiting rooms

Waiting rooms are hardly the places many would wish to spend the hours of their day. At best they are often dull. At worst, an apprehensive patient concerned about their illness could find them very unsettling. But could the messages we convey in NHS waiting rooms make the difference?

As a patient waits to see their GP, they are faced with a plethora of posters and leaflets, some of which are anything but welcoming or encouraging.

A poster from one NHS campaign sticks firmly in my mind for its use of negative language. Its big bold letters sat firmly the wall of the GP surgery: “Unfortunately, no amount of antibiotics will get rid of your cold.”

The antibiotics dilemma we now face is not in question. But how can such a negative message, with such negative language, starting with the word “unfortunately”, serve to help patients?

The campaign has even been mocked by online bloggers who chose to add the tagline “So stop wasting our time…”

The person writing the poster copy could have gone for a simple: “Antibiotics can’t help your cold, try X, Y or Z instead to ease your symptoms”. This would have removed some of the negative words, whilst bringing the antibiotics subject matter to the fore and providing an alternative solution to the patient.

In very small letters at the bottom of the original poster, some advice was in fact offered, but the emphatic message to the patient must not be that help is not here for you.

NHS waiting rooms do offer a fantastic opportunity for communication with patients and they should certainly continue to do so. Very important messages already promoted around advice, helplines, serious conditions and actions to take in emergency situations.

Yet, could we also offer positive messages that bring hope and even enjoyment? In the digital age, why shouldn’t we have screens showing good news of local NHS successes, or telling the stories of patients who are benefiting from the hard work of local NHS staff, and stories of patients who have defeated the odds against life threatening illnesses, mixed in with meaningful and helpful information?

We could even develop apps that can be downloaded, where patients can access the latest information on key campaigns, via free WiFi that can also be offered at surgeries, to allow people to connect with the world as they sit quietly waiting to see the doctor.

Many people who have long term conditions and health complications will spend many hours in NHS waiting rooms. And some people visiting a healthcare environment will already feel anxious. We should do all that we can to make their waiting experience a positive one.

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