The Chartered Institute of Public Relations is not usually mistaken for the floor of the Houses of Parliament.
But you could have been forgiven for thinking so on Monday 19 November when Labour peer and former head of the Care Quality Commission, Baroness Barbara Young (now chief executive of Diabetes UK) and the new group medical director for Bupa, Dr Paul Zollinger-Read, a key figure in the commissioning world, shared their insights into today’s NHS.
Clearly a bruising experience at the hands of the previous Government while head of the CQC left the Baroness in no mood to give the benefit of the doubt over the NHS to the Coalition’s ministers.
Former health secretary Andrew Lansley did not understand, as she does, what diabetes patients want from the health service and Jeremy Hunt was not shaping up much better, was the tenor of her message.
It all meant she said that patient organisations like hers should consider resisting becoming providers to the NHS, despite the urgings of both health secretaries, to avoid comprising their intended and more important role of bearing witness to what is being experienced by NHS patients.
The patient’s experience is a point that former GP Dr Zollinger-Read was also keen on. Their experience was still too paternalistic and GPs must shift from being gatekeepers to treatment to being navigators of care for patients. Primary care is an area ripe for reform, he thought.
That wasn’t the only area in need of attention: a refocus on dignity and improving commissioning were also key priorities.
Although Dr Zollinger-Read believes that the NHS still offers excellent value for money, his brief time in the independent sector in his new Bupa role had opened his eyes to the efficiencies and rigour that are the private sector’s forté.
Surely, his logic followed, there are benefits to be had from its involvement? Improving the care of the frail elderly out of hospital (the UK’s population timebomb) is one area that he has definite plans for. Bupa’s 300 care homes are part of those plans.
It was time he said to overcome NHS antibodies to the independent sector. It was time Baroness Young said to stand firm and refuse to yield to ideology.
The polarity of their positions is an object lesson for communicators in healthcare in how complex and political the environment is that they work in (if ever they needed reminding).
It is an enormous challenge to harness all that is good from whatever source it springs but one that the communicator is uniquely placed to embrace.
The temptation in an organisation the size of the NHS is to focus on the tiny part of the system that the communicator works in. This is a mistake.
Thinking must be strategic and delivery precise. Integrated communications is as vital as integrated healthcare.
Communicators improved representation in senior management levels and at the boardroom table means they now have the chance to use such insights wisely to challenge the status quo with innovative messaging.
Dr Zollinger-Read’s and Baroness Young’s viewpoints may be polar opposites but two points they are united on is that the patient must be at the heart of what the NHS does and integration is key.
If communicators doggedly hold to the same priorities with the patient at centre of their communications then the NHS will be moving nearer to achieving the right mix for a modern age.