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At-risk groups prepare for onslaught of winter campaigns


Blog headlines

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  • A year like no other
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Friday, 28 August 2015

At-risk groups prepare for onslaught of winter campaigns

It’s time to start planning for winter. With NHS trusts running a collective deficit of £800m and growing, the NHS simply can’t afford to have a lot of people turning up in ambulances, coughing and spluttering over staff and wasting valuable resources such as hospitals.

In recent years, the onset of winter has been marked by a rash of campaigns aimed at the hard of thinking and designed by their peers.

“Catch It, Kill It, Bin It” tackled widespread misconceptions about safe use and disposal of paper tissues. Handkerchief technique used to be taught to children by the parents and grandparents, but this valuable knowledge has been lost as communities fragmented and family values declined. The campaign introduced winter nose hygiene and snot management to a whole new generation. Most of us read about it on the tube or the bus while fellow passengers sneezed in our faces.

“Keep Warm, Keep Well” conveyed the deceptively simple message, ignored by so many, that warmth is an effective defence against low temperatures. Thousands of people who flung open their windows or turned off their central heating at the beginning of November were urged to think again. Even the prime minister chipped in with a personal plea to so-called colder people to consider donning a jumper or other woollen garment – though only at weekends and never, of course, while wearing an Armani suit.

“Under the Weather” addressed the problem that many people feel unwell at some time in their lives, but fail to seek medical attention because they believe their symptoms are purely metaphorical. This campaign was dropped for similar reasons as its predecessor Feeling a Bit Poorly, which resulted in a sudden increase in doctors’ appointments by people worried about the potential health risks of patronising euphemisms.

“Not Sure if You Need A&E ?” was an inspired campaign by NHS 111 designed to cut inappropriate attendance at hospital emergency departments by people suffering from minor ailments such as dithering. Service users were invited to take a short online survey to help them weigh their level of uncertainty against the risk of bleeding to death.

Part of the problem was that all of these campaigns were run by different organisations including Public Health England, the NHS Trust Development Authority, Monitor and NHS England. Worse still, the outbreak of national campaigns reached pandemic levels as presumptuous local NHS organisations ran campaigns of their own.

As a press release from Public Health England makes clear, this situation could not be allowed to continue for three reasons. First, it is highly inefficient for several organisations to deliver versions of the same message. Second, there is a serious risk that people may become confused by the different messages and start binning their winter woollies or jabbing their GP.

Third, and most importantly, communications is too important to be left to amateurs.

The winter campaign season is the perfect opportunity for ambitious NHS communicators frustrated by Comrade Sir Nicholson’s failure to bequeath them a national communications organisation to rise up once again and assume their rightful place as arbiters of everything.

The original proposals, outlined in a Department of Health presentation, talked in typically Stalinist terms of “supporting the creation of a local market in communications and engagement products, but in a more managed and efficient way”. Well, it’s high time the fig-leaf of local autonomy was whipped away from the nether regions of public health messaging too.

You can read all about it on the Public Health England website, where the rationale for the new “integrated” campaign plan is set out in fewer than 20 slides and the key messages for each of the groups most at risk of being on the receiving end of a campaign are clearly set out.

What you won’t find are any new slogans. These will presumably appear in mid-September in an autumn downpour of campaign materials. What gems can we expect from Flannel Central?

William Hill is giving short odds on “Think Carefully Before Getting Ill”, “Don’t Rely on Flu to Keep You Warm” and “Try Not to Fall Over This Winter”. 

You may have suggestions of your own, but unless they come with a Gateway number and the approval of the Winter Campaigns Control Committee, you would be well advised to keep them to yourself. The health risks of non-compliance are all too clear.

Public health editor: Julian Patterson


david seabrooke
david seabrooke says:
Aug 28, 2015 12:04 PM

Dear Dr Julian,

when the email arrived with this week's blog there was among the links at the end, this:

Winter campaign
A single campaign will replace the winter public health campaigns run by various NHS bodies.
Read more »

I hope you can help me as I am feeling confused - is it the blog I should be looking to for my weekly dose of satire, or is it this link? (which incidentally my web browser advises me not to visit as I might catch something.)

Julian Patterson
Julian Patterson says:
Aug 28, 2015 05:13 PM

Dear David
I can assure you the link is harmless but, like you, I can't work out if the content behind it is satirical or not. It reminds me of a question sometimes asked here: does someone really get paid for this stuff?

Sue Evans
Sue Evans says:
Aug 28, 2015 10:45 PM

Another laugh-out-loud offering. Thank you so much...

barry fitzgerald
barry fitzgerald says:
Aug 31, 2015 11:18 PM

"The hard of thinking" love it. I'll use that line in my next assessment or when describing the people who come up with some of the incredible decisions in the NHS, both local and national.