If there was a word to sum up healthcare communications in 2021 it would be ‘sustainability’…in all senses of the word

Shades of green

The healthcare sector was one of many gathered at Glasgow a few weeks ago for COP26. Global actors from Leonardo DiCaprio to Joe Biden espoused how to tackle the climate crisis – with the UK leading negotiations on a series of pledges and legally binding commitments.

Pharmaceutical companies showcased industry driven progress – from packaging reductions and reducing carbon emissions to greener supply chains. But there is clearly more work to be done. What’s interesting is that I think we’ll see an increase in PR around sustainability more generally in life sciences, potentially linked to broader corporate social responsibility initiatives such as diversity and inclusion. Winning this ‘green’ race should impact on attracting the best possible talent, but to avoid accusations of “greenwashing” the pharmaceutical sector should take the lead in 2022 by measuring and shouting about progress.Staying power

We are on the cusp of knowing if the Government’s vaccine booster campaign has done enough to (politically speaking) prevent any major policy changes that impact the economy.

But NHS CEOs are speaking out in unprecedented numbers about the intolerable pressures the system is experiencing (and will endure). I predict a small but significant exodus of highly experienced senior leaders from the NHS to the private sector will take place in 2022, leaving a brain drain just at the point at which the service will be implementing the widely reported integration system changes brought about by the Health and Care Bill 2021-22 which is weaving its way through Parliament as I write.

I fear all of this means the public will be in danger of experiencing a bout of ‘pandemic fatigue’ in 2022 while hospitals and healthcare systems are still dealing with COVID-19 and the backlog of patients. All of this means there will be a disconnect at the heart of many a disease awareness campaign – with the public wanting to move on with their lives, versus a healthcare system that may fall short. This could lead to frustrations with an NHS which is losing ground on trust scores with the public as every month passes.

The job of the life sciences sector in 2022 in all of this will be as a constructive partner – demonstrating where it can add value to tackling the elective backlog, backing innovations which will improve the quality of care in the short- to medium-term and collaborating with the NHS and wider partners where possible to provide ‘whole-pathway’ answers to knotty challenges, such as respiratory services and ophthalmology.Future sustainability

A question I’ve been pondering for a while now is what would be in the health metaverse of the future. With Facebook’s much publicised rebranding to meta, reams of text have been dedicated to the ‘metaverse’ – a phrase that’s been common parlance in Silicon Valley for a long time.

For those who aren’t already aware, a metaverse is a virtual reality ecosystem that allows people to connect in a ‘reality’ not experienced on a wide scale before. For context, in 2021, more UK patients than ever before booked virtual GP consultations.

Latest NHS data shows the proportion of face-to-face appointments out of the total number of appointments offered in England rose just three percentage points from 58% in August to 61% in September. Before the pandemic, the figure stood at about 80%. But the row over virtual appointments has already turned into a political football, with the Health Secretary wading into a battle with trade unions and professional bodies to give funding in exchange for more face-to-face appointments.

The workforce crisis in primary care and elsewhere means this won’t be resolved anytime soon. Which is why a consideration of a health metaverse is so intoxicating.
Immersive medical training sessions already take place in the metaverse, so there is potentially scope to expand this into the future. Could nurses or therapists carry out routine appointment / mental health checks in the metaverse? Can we imagine at time when patient support groups solely exist in a virtual reality parallel?Sustaining innovation and breakthroughs

There are reasons to be very hopeful as we hurtle towards 2022. This year there have been a number of truly exciting breakthroughs in the sector. Not least the immense vaccine roll-out programme. It is no coincidence that NHS England CEO Amanda Pritchard, and the Chancellor Rishi Sunak MP have both singled out Genomic England’s research project on whole genome sequencing in the past few weeks with particular pride. It symbolises everything the Government wants to project as its image of brand ‘Global Britain’. Innovative, a focus on babies and future-focused.

On the one hand, there is a danger that announcements like this place genetic and rare diseases in the ‘done for now’ box amongst policymakers and politicians. On the other hand, there could be interest in leveraging the breakthroughs made this year (such as the roll-out of the first treatment for sickle cell disease in over 20 years), to areas such as difficult-to-treat diseases, including technologies such as mRNA vaccines.

At OVID Health we also believe there will be a continuing focus on cell and gene therapies and personalised healthcare coupled with a spotlight on how cutting-edge (and existing) diagnostics and screening can catch diseases at an earlier stage. The challenge for advocacy and communications professionals in 2022 will be to paint a picture of the human benefits of such diagnostic progress, despite a resistance from payers to implement the available diagnostics capability in many disease areas at scale and on a regional basis.PR and advocacy

Over the past year corporate communications channels have evolved. Gone are the days where you can place a strong agenda-setting life sciences story in a national with relative ease. 2022 is the year of companies publishing their content and owning it in every way. Trade media that’s hyper-targeted to a set of healthcare professionals will be more valuable than a syndicated press release spread far and wide without true engagement.

Part of this shift in channels is the voice of inclusion and how it’s considered in communications strategies. If we really want to learn the lessons of the pandemic, and the health inequalities it exposed like never before, then we have a responsibility to proactively challenge the status quo in how disease awareness or health education campaigns are targeted.

Earlier this year OVID conducted an audience insight project on lung cancer symptom presentation for an NHS organisation in London. The client wanted to understand the drivers of late presentation during the pandemic to target a behaviour change campaign in the most impactful way. One message that stood out to me was how family members are key drivers of action – meaning that we must start to take a ‘whole family’ approach to communications if we truly want to drive sustainable change on behalf of patients.

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