Is the way the NHS crisis is reported in the media counter-productive?

  • Published: 19 February 2018,
  • The Say Team

The NHS crisis

The NHS crisis is seemingly ubiquitous in the news at the moment. Not enough beds, not enough nurses, not enough doctors, and not enough money. I start my mornings reading the healthcare stories in the newspapers, and I am constantly given the impression that the NHS is a giant sinkhole that nothing except large amounts of cash the government doesn’t have and thousands more staff can fix.

To some extent this may be true, I’m certainly no health economist, but I can’t help but think that the way the NHS crisis is reported in the media may be creating a sense of helplessness among the public, perhaps even among those working in the NHS, that could be stopping us from focusing on how we could all do our bit to help.

Communication is key

During my MSc in Science Communication, I studied how climate change is reported in the media, and it strikes me how many parallels there are with the reporting of the NHS crisis.

Both are often framed as a political problem- something governments and industry need to pledge to fix. The well-researched effect of this framing of climate change is that it can make the public feel distanced from the issue and absolved of personal responsibility. I worry that we need to be wary of the same happening with the NHS.

If people think the problem is so big that anything they do will just be like putting a plaster on a broken leg, they won’t do anything. In actual fact there is something everyone, from NHS commissioners to the public, could be doing on some level to ease pressure.

  NHS crisis The public piece of the puzzle

If enough marginal gains were made, the resulting ripple effect could make a big difference. Every tiny bit of pressure relieved goes some way towards saving money, or time, or just making staff work environments that little bit easier.

For example, this winter, I have heard more than one friend advise another friend to go to the doctor over a cough or cold they have had for just a couple of weeks. It has made me realise that people still aren’t going to their pharmacist first, because they still hope their GP might have some quick-fix up their sleeve. We are in the habit of going to the wrong place for help- wasting GP appointments for over the counter solutions, or going to A&E for things the GP could actually help with.

I suspect part of the key to changing this behaviour could be changing the way we talk about the NHS. There will never be one answer to the crisis, the problems are too complex. Major changes may still be required at the policy level, but the public needs to understand that they are also part of the solution.

At an industry level, I think those of us working in PR and journalism need to always keep in mind how the framing of our messages could have unintended effects on the people’s motivation to make a change. On a personal level, I will continue to gently remind my friends to think about whether their GP is really the right place to go for their minor winter ailments.

By Helena S

What's Next?