NHS communicators and the challenges they face

NHS communicators and the challenges they face

Recent polling research for a major national conference of NHS professional communicators suggests the public is becoming more knowledgeable and better-informed about the NHS and the challenges it faces.

There is a very healthy public scepticism about content derived from social media sources, and a growing recognition that service specialisation and digital technologies can offer real patient improvements.

The research was undertaken for the NHS Communicate Conference and as one of the top ten public sector agencies in the UK1 – with a large number of NHS clients – Freshwater was proud to be the conference sponsor.  Nick Samuels, Freshwater’s Executive Director of Healthcare, was a keynote conference speaker.

The conference – which was organised by NHS Providers, the NHS Confederation and the Centre for Health Communication Research – brought together 250 professional communicators and engagement experts from across the NHS.  The consensus view of conference attendees was that this was a much-needed opportunity for communications professionals in a crucial sector to share experiences and best practice after the enormous challenges of the global pandemic.

A conference presentation on the new research2 showcased some of the main findings.  Asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the proposition that “healthcare should be local where possible and specialist where necessary”, 50% of public respondents strongly agreed and over 85% either strongly agreed or generally agreed.  The implication is that members of the public are becoming increasingly aware that simple diagnostics like blood tests can and should be undertaken in the community, but that more complex treatments or diagnostics are best undertaken in specialist centres, even if that means travelling further.

Asked for their views on conducting more appointments by telephone or video link, almost 60% of respondents thought it was a “great idea” or a “good idea but not for every appointment”.  There is an important message here for NHS leaders and professional communicators.  The NHS needs to emphasise the fact that, while digital engagement will become more commonplace, it isn’t appropriate for everything.

Perhaps the best news to emerge from this research, for the NHS, is that it remains by far the most trusted source of information on COVID.  Over 30% of respondents said they completely trust the NHS and 80% gave the NHS a positive trust score.  Twice as many people said they “completely trust” the NHS as any other source and four times as many people “completely trust” the NHS, when it comes to receiving information about the pandemic, compared to those who feel the same way about information coming from government.

Trust in the Welsh Government as a source of information about COVID has risen significantly during the pandemic with 76% of people giving the Welsh Government a positive trust score, up 21% on the position a year ago.  But trust in social media as a source of information is rock bottom.  For every respondent that said they trust social media completely, eight said they do not trust it at all.

When it comes to the future, it is clear that dealing with the backlog in waiting lists is public priority number one, followed by investing in the NHS generally, and hiring more doctors and nurses specifically.

So, what does all this mean for NHS communicators?

One of the big challenges is going to be managing expectations. The pressure on waiting lists is well documented and, for most people, it’s how the NHS is going to be judged. But there is no miracle cure and things could get worse before they get better, so communicators need to be telling an honest story to their audiences, putting trusted clinicians at the heart of these conversations and providing practical examples on how local services are rising to the challenge.

The NHS Communicate Conference was reminded of the old journalistic adage that “if it bleeds, it leads” and there is plenty of evidence that negative news stories are more likely to make front page news, because they sell more papers or attract more clicks.



1 Source: PR Week

2 Research conducted by the Survation polling company