There is a train coming down the track at high speed and it is the PR crisis that Primary care faces. Public perceptions are varied concerning the role of General Practice through the pandemic. Some patients will have seen (at first hand) the scale of change and digital adoption that has been achieved, the challenges of keeping first contact with the NHS functioning and the tireless work of dedicated GPs and nurses over the last 18 months.
Others will have experienced a total silence about what GP surgeries are doing other than involvement in a vaccination scheme (that they get paid for anyway) and addition time needed to process repeat prescriptions.
There are 5 basic rules when engaging in public relations or the art of gaining public support,
Put Yourself in the Public's Shoes; One of the biggest challenges in public relations is trying to create good PR based on the public’s perception. General Practices know the information it wants the public to see, but the public are not buying it. All that they see is the difficulty of getting to see a GP and get their problem sorted.
Be Consistent with Information Release; When releasing patient information it is vital that the channels used by patients are utilised (The surgery website, Facebook, Patient Participation Groups, Digital newsletters etc). Remaining consistent with how, where and when information is released will reduce the possibility of misinterpretation.
Make It Searchable;When patients want information they head for the Internet. If you want patient to see the right information, then the practice needs to optimise every update or press release for relevant keyword searches.
Be Straightforward; simple and direct information updates will have the biggest impact. Present any information you are putting out in a straightforward manner so that the public can easily understand it. If you try and dazzle jargon and NHS-speak you will lose credibility.
Know Your Audience; Whilst General Practices have had a tough time so have their patients. Getting defensive and just parroting the fact that you are just following process or policy will deepen patient mistrust of the current situation. Understanding the fears that patients have is the first stepping stone to rebuilding GP/patient trust. Any information updates should take into consideration patient concerns to demonstrate empathy.
Public Relations does not come naturally to Primary Care. Public engagement is often something done to tick a box (although there are some excellent examples that buck that trend around the country). There has been little done to keep the public onboard with the measures the NHS/Primary Care has taken during the pandemic and little to explain the current situation. Members of the public simply see the reduced access to GP appointments or secondary care referrals and assume that nothing has filled those gaps because NO ONE HAS TOLD THEM WHAT IS HAPPENING. It is time that Primary Care set the record straight with a public information programme that reconnects with patients concerns and questions. Public support will be needed during this winter and it may not be there unless action is taken by Practices now.