Why Elvis got it wrong - and how health charities can get it right

Elvis got it wrong. He asked for: ‘A little less conversation; a little more action’. Yet anyone who has run a communications campaign that has changed professional practice will know that ‘conversation’ and ‘action’ are inextricably linked. You often need one to achieve the other. 

This is one of the take home messages from a new practical guide on the role of communications to spread improvement ideas in health care, published by the Health Foundation. View the guide here.

In developing the guide, three lessons for charity communicators have stood out from my research:

  1. You win hearts and minds through personal interaction  
    Improving health care typically means changing professional practice, and persuading teams of people to change their practice is very hard indeed. 

    Studies show that the most effective communications strategies involve people early on in the process, enlist champions, communicate with and through networks of professionals, and listen to and engage opinion leaders.  In the words of one doctor I spoke to: “The magic happens at face-to-face meetings”.  The best strategies exploit all the channels available, both formal and informal, but they never lose sight of the fact that it’s the personal conversations that count the most. 
  2. The patient’s voice can be the most powerful communications tool in health care
    In interviews with doctors and nurses exploring the communications they respond to, they consistently tell me that the individual anecdotes involving patients spur them on to improve care, more than any amount of management directives. 

    Patient groups and charities can help ensure the patient’s voice is heard. Charities like Macmillan, Rethink and the MS Society play a powerful role in steering the debate at a national level, but they have just as important a role locally. It has struck me how instrumental their work can be in equipping the professionals who are trying to bring about change in their organisations with the insights and evidence as to what patients experience and what they want. 
  3. Don’t overlook the financial case
    Both charities and NHS teams need to win funding for new ideas in improving health care. There are no easy answers or quick tips here, but a common pitfall is to overlook the financial context and to fail to consider and communicate the efficiency benefits around any proposed change. 

Michael Nation, Development Director, Kidney Research UK reminds us that: “Of course clinical outcomes are key, but you also have to address the business case. In a challenging environment how do you show that what you are proposing adds value and improves efficiency? You have to show why your intervention is better than the next idea.”

With the current pressures health professionals are working under, it has arguably never been harder to influence their practice. But in developing this guide, I have found reasons to be cheerful. 

The NHS Five Year Forward View provides some strong direction and inspires hope in its emphasis on the patient. There is also growing evidence around what works in spreading health care improvement, with organisations like the Health Foundation equipping many inspiring professionals and clinical teams with the tools and knowledge to bring about change from within.

Many are driven by a commitment to their patients and a desire to avoid the culture and working practices that led to scandals like the one in Mid-Staffordshire. Health charities and patient groups have a vital role to play in helping these people maintain their momentum, and in supporting the heartfelt conversations that lead to action.