What’s in a name? Building a brand in the independent health sector
Working in the independent health sector I am often bemused by the nature of healthcare debate in this country. To someone unfamiliar with the inner machinations of the health sector, reading the newspapers must be a fairly terrifying experience. On the one hand, our public sector-run NHS is described as being in a state of perpetual crisis and permanently on the brink of complete destruction. To put this in to context, newspapers have been saying this consistently since at least the 1980’s. Irrespective of the reality that a service employing 1.7m people and providing universal healthcare to an entire nation is going to have its exemplars as well as its ‘problem children’, the NHS is always inexplicably referred to as one gigantic, unwieldy organisation. On the other hand, the independent (or ‘private’) healthcare sector is described in increasingly baroque terms as being full of voracious, profit-hungry villains, desperate to tear down the sainted NHS in the name of making a quick buck.
Any major political campaign, be it a leadership battle or a general election, inevitably brings these cartoonish characterisations to the fore. Before every election, the Conservatives are forced to expend a great deal of time and energy attempting to reassure a sceptical public that they don’t intend to sell the NHS to ‘their mates in the City’ at the first available opportunity. Meanwhile it is now a prerequisite of any Labour leadership election that all candidates promise to ‘save our NHS’ if elected. It is never made clear exactly what it is they will be saving it from.
As with so many things in life, the reality is considerably less dramatic. In a great many areas of healthcare delivery, the public and private sectors work in tandem on a daily basis to deliver services to patients. Private hospital groups work with NHS Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) to tackle NHS waiting lists. In the mental health sector, independent sector providers are responsible for caring for a vast number of patients with complex conditions, in specialist settings which the NHS simply cannot provide. Meanwhile innovative providers like Healthcare at Home or ORLA Healthcare are working with NHS Trusts to enable a greater number of patients to receive hospital-level treatment in their own home, freeing up valuable hospital beds for acute cases. There are now numerous examples of NHS Trusts, independent sector providers and not-for-profit organisations successfully bidding for contracts as joint venture partners, to provide ‘free at the point of need’ services to their local health economies. However, a great deal of independent sector provision doesn’t involve the NHS at all, as the public appears increasingly willing to pay extra in order to take control of its own healthcare.
So why the bad press? In my view, the problem is that the independent health sector has historically struggled when it comes to public relations and marketing. To the vast majority of the population, the sector is a total mystery and huge misconceptions exist across the board. For instance, any news story about rehabilitation services nationwide inevitably refers to a stay at ‘The Priory’, a Roehampton facility made famous by its celebrity patients. In truth, the Priory Group has a network of over 300 facilities across the country and changed hands this year for £1.3bn.
In virtually every other commercial enterprise in the UK, there are brands which can demonstrate instant household recognition. With the exception of a select few organisations, the independent health sector appears to be light on recognisable brands. Does the general public know that they can readily access a price list and pay for virtually any conceivable operation, without needing to join a waiting list? Or that they can pay privately for relatives to stay in a high-quality, purpose-built care home? Or for home care services? Or for instant access to GP appointments? Or indeed for mental health services such as therapy and counselling? If so, are there ‘household name’ brands, to which the average person would immediately turn? I would suggest that virtually no healthcare brand has yet penetrated the public consciousness in this way, and this must surely represent an enormous opportunity.
In interim management terms, Human Resources has undoubtedly been the sector’s major hiring trend of the last year or two. I have spent a great deal of time assisting organisations looking to fix long-standing HR process, recruitment and retention issues and placing senior interims who are capable of achieving just that. However of late I have begun to hear a greater number of CEOs speaking about ‘brand recognition’ and looking to address some of the wide-reaching misconceptions which exist about our sector. Make no mistake, there are many marketing, digital and communications interims out there with strong commercial-sector backgrounds, itching to turn their hands to a new sector. With the above in mind, I wonder if a new trend may be primed to appear.
There are independent health sector organisations out there providing genuinely world-class care to their patients, each and every day – surely it’s time that we started telling the world about it?