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NHS ad campaign to encourage public to access GPs via remote consultations

by Emma Wilkinson
9 December 2022

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The NHS will encourage the public to access GPs via remote consultations, and make greater use of the pharmacy, in an advertising campaign designed to reduce pressures.

It is part of a multi-million-pound three-year advertising contract awarded to M&C Saatchi for the ‘Help Us Help You’ campaign to ‘encourage people to access NHS services at the right time in the right way’, the Guardian revealed.

A copy of the winning Saatchi bid, seen by the newspaper and which aims to change people’s behaviour in accessing the NHS, states: ‘Critically, this brief increasingly asks the public to behave in ways they’ve not experienced before and are resistant to – the very definition of unprecedented.’

It continued: ‘For example, “seeing” their GP without going to see them, breaking the ingrained habit of rushing straight to emergency departments, or ignoring the urge to “not be a bother” over apparently trivial symptoms.’

Objectives set out for the advertising campaign, worth up to £28.6m, reportedly include: people calling NHS 111 to book an A&E time slot slot or be directed to ‘a more suitable alternative’; those who need to see their GP feeling ‘comfortable doing so digitally in the first instance’; and anybody with minor ailments going ‘straight to see their pharmacist, rather than booking an appointment with their GP’.

A key focus for the campaign to date has been on increasing awareness of cancer symptoms. GPs are referring record numbers of patients for urgent cancer tests.

The advertising contract is capped at a cost of £19.9m for three years, but with the option of an additional 12 months for a £8.6m limit. The Guardian reported that it is understood that the NHS expects the final cost to be a fraction of that figure.

Labour said patients were already cutting back on in-person GP appointments because they are finding it impossible to get one.

‘Instead of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money spent telling patients to stay away, the government should be training the staff the NHS needs to see all patients when they need it,’ shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said.

In September, now ex-health and social care secretary Thérèse Coffey said in ‘Our plan for patients’ that the NHS would help people be better informed about how to prevent the need for healthcare in the first place and how to access it through various pathways ‘and equip them to make informed choices with an expectation of the service that will be provided to them’.

The plan also states: ‘We will also inform patients on alternative pathways for their own care and reducing the need to use the NHS at all.’

Earlier this month the Practice Managers Association warned that the media rhetoric that it is ‘virtually impossible’ to see a GP has to end as practices continue to face abuse from patients.

Data from NHS Digital showed GP practices in England delivered a record 36 million appointments last month.

NHS England said the campaign ‘is designed to save lives by encouraging people to access NHS services at the right time and in the right way’, by making people aware that they may be offered a range of options when it comes to accessing health services.

The campaign, which has been running for some time, has already increased awareness of key cancer symptoms, with record numbers of patients referred for tests this year after seeing their GP, a spokesperson highlighted.

They added: ‘The NHS is clear that people should be offered a face-to-face GP appointment if that is their preference – and last month seven in 10 people were seen in person, despite the health service delivering almost 30% more appointments compared [with] the same period before the pandemic.’

A version of this story was first published on our sister title Pulse.