Written by Susan Venables , who is a founder and client services director of Highland Marketing, which she established in 2002. It provides UK and international health tech clients with integrated PR and marketing communications services.
The arrival of the novel coronavirus has been shocking and is impacting on all sorts of unexpected areas, including the use of technology in the NHS. Health tech vendors are naturally scrambling to respond.
But amid the chaos, some important changes are being made and some significant trends are emerging that should be positive for the industry in the longer-term. Health tech public relations leader Susan Venables, founder and client services director of specialist PR and marcomms agency, Highland Marketing, examines the impact of the crisis on the heath tech sector and the resulting communications priorities and opportunities.
It is hard to find positives in the sudden dislocation caused by the spread of the novel coronavirus. A little over two weeks ago, the NHS was being advised to encourage people to use NHS 111 Online to get advice about the disease and to ramp up online booking and remote consultations in primary care. A week later, it was being asked to free-up 30,000 beds ahead of the suspension of all non-urgent, elective operations from 15 April.
Away from the NHS, government advice has evolved to telling people they must stay at home, only going out as an exception, to get basic necessities, take exercise once a day or to travel to and from work which “absolutely” cannot be done from home.
Still, amid the shock and the chaos there are, if not positives exactly, some trends and changes that should be positive for health tech companies and the services they work with in the longer-term.
Covid-19 has shown the NHS is behind the curve on tech adoption
Think about those speeches by health and social care secretary Matt Hancock and the leaders of NHSX and NHS Digital at the Digital Health Rewired conference recently, urging the service to put patient advice, booking and consultation services online. In some ways, the surprising thing about them was that they were necessary.
As many health tech ‘thought leadership’ pieces have pointed out over the past decade, many other aspects of people’s lives, from catching up with the news to booking a holiday to holding a team-meeting, moved online so long ago that they’ve since moved on again to mobile devices.
For a whole host of reasons, health and social care has failed to follow suit, leaving primary care services to scramble as Covid-19 hit. Yet the consensus is that the changes being made now will lead to a long-term shift in attitudes to ‘digital first’.
Addressing infrastructure barriers
Some things will need to happen to consolidate the shift. Neil Paul, a GP and longstanding columnist on a health tech website, pointed out that his infrastructure and computer kit is not up to the demands of remote consultations.
Infrastructure and kit will need to be upgraded; or the NHS will need to invest in videoconferencing platforms. Health and care services will need ongoing support from companies operating in this space.
Meanwhile, the NHS Long Term Plan talked about reducing physical outpatient appointments by a third. The ‘dear chief executive letter’ that NHS England and NHS Improvement sent about Covid-19 suggested that all diagnostic and outpatient appointments for older and vulnerable people should be run this way.
“Face to face appointments,” it added, “should only take place when absolutely necessary.” That’s a big shift, not just in technology, but in the assumptions being made about where care should be delivered; out in the community, rather than in hospital.
Sorting out the Information Governance and the structures and the money
To underpin these changes – and to make sure that NHS staff unable to get into their normal place of work can work from home and for services like NHS 111 – NHSX has put out new guidance on information governance and devices.
The advice, backed by the NHS Data Guardian and the Information Commissioner, says that instead of getting bogged down in how they are sharing information, NHS staff should just focus on who they are sharing it with and why. The message: as long as it’s for care, it’ll be ok.
Assuming that clarity is maintained once the Covid-19 crisis is past, there should be a huge boost for integrated care record and population health management projects that up to now have struggled with IG.
The effective suspension of the NHS internal market, and the move to block contracts to pay organisations for work done, could help, too, by cutting through some of the issues around who pays for integrated working – and who benefits from the efficiencies or quality improvements it generates.
Hospitals need tech, too
So, the coronavirus is moving fast, and things are changing with it. Digital first primary care and outpatients have just received a huge boost and are likely here to stay, while a couple of the big obstacles to integrated digital care records and population health could just have been removed.
And it’s not just these areas that are seeing the potential of health tech. The providers of electronic patient records, nursing observation and bed management solutions, have moved to show how their products can help hospitals to identify patients with Covid-19, put them on appropriate treatment paths, and help clinicians and housekeepers to take appropriate protective measures.
Hospitals that don’t have this kind of technology are left trying to manage these issues on paper. The pandemic may just prove definitively that is not good enough any longer.
In one of the last pieces of ‘business as usual’ before it hit, NHSX announced the first wave of ‘digital aspirant’ trusts, without clarifying where their funding would come from or how they had been chosen. Hopefully, it will provide more detail in time for another wave of fast and effective procurements to follow.
With so much going on, what should the health tech community be doing to communicate with the NHS? For individual businesses, the answer is going to depend on the kind of solution they have to offer, and how their own marketing and communications plans have been impacted by the coronavirus.
Businesses with remote booking and consultation services need to be getting their messages out right now, through press releases, blogs and thought leadership, plus, where possible, case studies that explain how customers are working with their solutions. They need to make best use of such content on publication platforms and social media.
Enterprise IT companies that are putting business continuity plans in place and making changes to their systems that will help the NHS to address the crisis in different ways need to communicate these to customers.
Plan to communicate in the future
Some of the same companies have seen their longer-term communication and marketing plans disrupted by the cancellation of shows and restrictions on face-to-face meetings. As a result, they should consider services that extend the reach and impact of events that have moved online, such as live-blogging and live-drawing, or turning video content into written and social media.
Understandably, some companies will feel that PR and marketing activity is not appropriate at the moment; or find that customers are not receptive to it.
For vendors in this position, the advice would be to look beyond the immediate crisis, to pay attention to those longer-term trends and changes, and to be ready to play into them when the time is right.
It will be essential to review plans and strategies, get your website and social media in good order, and create effective, impactful content for marketing and press distribution.
Recently, prime minister Boris Johnson compared fighting the coronavirus to fighting a war. But wars end; and it’s while they are going on that it’s time to plan for the peace.