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Bucks-led research reveals that NHS managers fear drop in support for the service

Bucks-led research reveals that NHS managers fear drop in support for the service

Research by the Centre for Health Communication Research (CHCR),  based at Buckinghamshire New University, has revealed  that NHS communication managers are concerned public support may start to erode as it faces the daunting task of restoring pre-Covid levels of service and dealing with rapidly lengthening waiting lists.

A survey of over 150 NHS professional communications specialists found serious concern about whether public support for the NHS would continue given the prospect of numerous delayed diagnoses of serious illnesses such as cancer and heart disease.

The research was conducted in May and June of this year by the Centre for Health Communication Research in conjunction with NHS Providers and NHS Confederation. It included respondents from across the country and from all types of NHS organisation including hospital Trusts, ambulance Trusts, health commissioners and health regulators.

Respondents spoke of the NHS benefitting from a 'feeling of reverence' during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic when the public came out to applaud frontline workers every Thursday evening. But the research indicates a clear concern that 'perceptions of the NHS will change quickly' when the immediate pandemic threat passes and stories of delayed operations, missed cancer diagnoses and longer waiting lists for mental health services start to emerge.

One respondent said: “I think we are going to enter a period soon where the media and public will start turning on the NHS as we are unable to meet expectations of restoring services and seeing people as quickly as they hope.”

John Underwood, Director of the Centre for Health Communication Research, said:

“The NHS will undoubtedly be a very different service in the coming months and years and in many respects the pandemic has been a catalyst for the sort of rapid change that is sorely needed. But the changes ahead may not be welcomed by members of the public, many of whom who are expecting a return to some sort of pre-Covid ‘normal’. And a return to anything like normality depends on persuading patients and the public that hospitals are not dangerous places and that many are now largely Covid-free environments.”

Other key findings from the survey include…

·     - A strong feeling that during the pandemic there has been less bureaucracy across the NHS with little resistance to change, greater flexibility and an ability for people to adapt quickly. Respondents wrote of, “tearing down barriers, doing things in days that would previously take years” and the development of a 'just get it done' attitude which has meant decisions can be made quickly and efficiently'. 82% of respondents said that during the pandemic management decision-making had been significantly faster with fewer unnecessary meetings and the abandonment of 'pointless or aimless projects'.

  - Professional communicators also felt the pandemic had triggered a strong wave of transformative innovation across the NHS with video conferencing, private staff Facebook groups, team collaboration software, video shot on smart phones, secure clinical messaging platforms and live streaming of events on YouTube… all becoming commonplace across the NHS. And, of course, technology is transforming the way in which clinicians interact with patients with many more GP and hospital outpatient appointments and consultations taking place by telephone or through video conferencing. Respondents felt the NHS is moving much closer to a system of “digital first” care.


Notes to Editors:

·     The full research white paper can be accessed here

·     The Centre for Health Communication Research (CHCR) is based at Buckinghamshire New University.  It focuses on the communication challenges, issues and opportunities faced by organisations in the health sector.  This research project was undertaken with support from NHS Providers and the NHS Confederation.

·     The authors are John Underwood (Director of the Centre for Health Communication Research), Bill Nichols (Deputy Director of the Centre for Health Communication Research) and Julie Hollings (Research Associate).

·     Innovative software referenced by respondents in this research survey include: health engagement events being live streamed on Facebook Live, Microsoft Teams or YouTube; apps such as Slido or Glisser being used to encourage and gauge patient interaction; team collaboration software such as Trello; video shot on smart phones and then being used on NHS websites; secure, clinical messaging platforms such as Pando; and patient communication software like AccuRX and Attend Anywhere.

·     The research findings from this work are based on a large-scale quantitative survey that was circulated to NHS professional communicators in May 2020. Fieldwork took place between 20 May 2020 and 3 June 2020.

·     In total 165 NHS communicators responded including a significant sample from each of the seven NHS England regions, from a range of NHS organisations (including hospital Trusts, ambulance Trusts, health commissioners and health regulators) and from all levels of communication seniority (including mid-level communications staff up to Director of Communications level).

·     It should be noted that this is a rapid publication 'white paper. A complementary technical paper will appear shortly to provide a formal framework and supporting analysis. Comprehensive analysis and academic publication will follow later. The white paper has been published now because the Centre believes it is important that the insights from this research are shared as quickly and as widely as possible.