By Hugo Greenhalgh on 8 Jan 2015
Positive PR for other health services can ease A&E pressure
This week’s accident and emergency figures which showed that NHS England has seen its worst waiting times for a decade led to Labour calling for an urgent summit on the pressures facing the NHS.
From October to December last year, 92.6% of patients turning up were seen in four hours – below the 95% target. Meanwhile, a rash of hospital trusts across the country have declared ‘major incidents’ turning away all but the most serious cases as they struggle to cope with unprecedented demand.
According to Labour, the government and NHS now need to agree on coordinated action.
But there’s also a critical role here for public relations in helping to dampen the pressure on an over-stretched NHS.
One A&E nurse dubbed the festive period, covered in the statistics, ‘granny dump season’ – a reference to people dropping their elderly relatives in hospital, via A&E, over the holidays so they don’t have to act as carers.
We’re now well into the busiest time of year for A&E departments, so it’s essential that families of elderly relatives are made aware of realistic alternative options they can consider.
Reducing the number of people being taken to A&E departments unnecessarily must be a key tactic the government uses if it ever hopes to get back to achieving its 95 per cent four-hour waiting targets.
Communicating effectively to both patients and carers about the options available to them other than A&E is as important as improving capacity – possibly even more so.
But with the health secretary ignoring NHS guidance by last year admitting he takes his children to A&E rather than waiting to see a GP, a clearer message must be delivered.
Local government, charity and NHS comms teams have a key role to play in publicising the community services on offer as an alternative to A&E.
It doesn’t all have to be multi-million pound initiatives. For example, a festive story about a third sector meals-on-wheels initiative in Swansea probably helped to ensure many more older people received a bit of Christmas cheer.
While the press is certainly more interested in ‘bad news’, advertorials can be another route for getting a more positive message to a target audience. For example, a Guardian article from last December sponsored by Liverpool City Council gave an insight into the good work and services care homes offer throughout the festive period.
Arguably the biggest PR blunder, which might have prevented the current situation in A&E, has been the failure to properly publicise the non-emergency number NHS111.
NHS111 has come in for criticism for referring too many patients to A&E in the run-up to Christmas, but has rebuked these claims saying that referrals dropped from 7.6 per cent to 5.7 percent.
In any case, that’s missing the point. If those who went to A&E unnecessarily had the confidence that calling 111 would give them genuine reassurance, many trips could have been avoided.
More people are using this service in many areas across the country so the opportunity for positive case studies is there. The NHS111 in West Midlands this week received its millionth call. While not as dramatic as A&E horror stories, human examples can help build trust in the service.
This shouldn’t be seen as an attempt by the NHS or government to disguise bad news with good PR. Because without these positive and educational messages getting out there, there’s a very real danger we may exacerbate the pressures on A&E still further.