Hanover

13 Oct 2022

The second Thursday of each month is always a significant day in the NHS comms calendar.

A raft of stats is published showing how the NHS is faring in A&Es, in tackling the elective care COVID backlog, expanding access to diagnostics, providing mental health care, and more.

It exposes the capacity, performance and strain – never slack – in the health service.

NHSE and DHSC press officers will be monitoring coverage in broadcast bulletins from 9.30am today through until the 10pm bulletins and paper review tonight, as well as tomorrow’s editions.

During my time at NHS England, against this backdrop, we would try to demonstrate progress in patient care despite the considerable challenges.

The only approach to managing this news is to set the individual statistics – showing waiting lists rising, A&E pressure building – into the wider context.

The capacity in social care is seriously stretched, making discharging patients harder.

The huge number of vacancies across the service reduces capacity.

And despite rising numbers joining the elective waitlist, there is progress in managing the longest waits.

As winter approaches, inflation bites and tough choices are made on resource allocation, challenges for NHS comms teams will intensify too.

NHS communicators over winter have among the most difficult comms jobs in the country, with three competing and often mutually exclusive pressures to manage: essential public information; political reality; staff morale.

The starting point will continue to be: what does the public need to know about how they access care?

Well-trodden public information campaigns will again be important in helping people understand the routes into the NHS, but as ever, local services and national organisations must balance vital public information to keep people coming forward with the reality of how busy services are likely to be.

The government will scrutinise how the NHS performs over winter, and ministers will need to balance the understandable desire to show the system is coping with the reality of huge pressure on staff just to maintain services.

For the NHS, being honest about challenges the service faces is important not just to remain authentic to patients’ and employees’ experience of busy A&Es and long waits for 111, but to continue to remind the public and Westminster about how the service is making the best use of its funding to deliver essential care.

This tension plays out particularly when ensuring NHS staff hear, read and see coverage that legitimately reflects frontline stress while not discouraging potential recruits from signing up to fill those many unfilled posts.

The NHS continues to deliver extraordinary things. Alongside the pressure of emergency and elective care, there are world-leading programmes in diabetes and mental health, first-of-their-kind treatment launches, and increasingly creative use of data and insight in communities to tackle unmet needs.

The challenge for NHS communicators is to find space in the media to tell these stories.

Reconciling competing pressures of sustaining essential public information, political scrutiny and staff experience was always a challenge, particularly during COVID.

And as the health service and government brace for a tough winter and tougher 2023, managing this balancing act will be tested again.

James Mole is health comms director at Hanover and was formerly NHS deputy director of communications