Plans have been made to prevent the NHS is overwhelmed this winter by encouraging patients to “behave in ways they haven’t experienced before” and reducing in-person GP visits, The Guardian can reveal.
An advertising campaign devised by M&C Saatchi, awarded a contract for National Health Service England worth up to £28.6 million, suggested ways people could be encouraged to settle for a virtual appointment or visit a pharmacist instead.
To help reduce the mounting pressures facing doctors, the documents show the agency also advised patients that seeking help via alternative routes rather than rushing to A&E would help the NHS “work better for everyone”.
The three-year contract is for the ‘Help us help you’ advertising campaign, which seeks to change people’s behavior when accessing healthcare to reduce pressures on the NHS and maintain capacity.
Faced with strikes by nurses and other possible stoppages by other hospital workers, health chiefs are fighting to prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed by backlog of operations, worker shortages and delays in social care reforms promised during a long time.
Saatchi’s offer to run the campaign quoted Einstein, saying that he “once remarked that the definition of insanity was ‘to do the same thing and expect a different result’.” The agency said that because of this, much of its work would build on existing approaches, but around 20% would be spent “exploring new ways to achieve the goal.”
A copy of his winning bid, seen by The Guardian, said the NHS was facing “unprecedented pressures”, evident in waiting lists, rising demand, morale and funding challenges.
“Critically, this report increasingly asks the public to behave in a way that they have not experienced before and resists, the very definition of unprecedented,” he continued.
“For example, ‘seeing’ your GP without going to see them, breaking the ingrained habit of running straight to emergency departments, or ignoring the impulse to ‘don’t be a bother’ for seemingly trivial symptoms.”
Saatchi’s offer said that satisfaction with the NHS had reached “an all-time low” but that support for a public health service had “never been higher”. He added: “People’s willingness to help ‘our NHS’ is stronger than ever… The key challenge of this roundup is turning that professional sentiment into behaviour.”
Nine goals were set for the ad campaign, which was designed to “sway mass audiences.”
They included: people wanting to go to A&E first by speaking to the NHS 111 service to book a time slot or be directed to “a more suitable alternative”; those who need to see their GP feeling “comfortable doing it digitally in the first instance”; and anyone with minor ailments who go “straight to see their pharmacist, rather than book an appointment with their GP.”
Saatchi said the “ease of talking” to a GP by phone or video could lead people to feel there was a “good reason to bring up that little thing they’ve been ignoring”.
He added that people with possible symptoms of cancer and those seeking information online should be encouraged to “follow up on your concerns and see your GP.”
The advertising campaign contract runs for three years, with a maximum cost of £19.9m, but could be extended for a further 12 months for an additional £8.6m, which would bring the total to a maximum of approximately £28.6 million. However, it is understood that the NHS expects the final cost to be a fraction of that figure.
Wes Streeting, the Labor party’s shadow health secretary, said patients were already cutting back on in-person GP appointments, “not because they don’t need them, but because they find it impossible to get one.”
He told The Guardian: “Among those millions of patients who can’t get an appointment when they need it, there will be problems that go undiagnosed until it’s too late.
“Instead of spending millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money telling patients to stay away, the government should train the staff the NHS needs to see all patients when they need it.”
Streeting promised that a Labor government would oversee “the biggest expansion of medical training in the history of the NHS”, paid for by the abolition of non-dom tax status.
In October, GPs delivered a total of 36.1 million appointments, an increase of 20.1% from the previous month and significantly higher than before the Covid pandemic. Nearly half a million more patients were also screened for cancer between March 2021 and August 2022, compared to the same period before the pandemic.
A spokesman for the health service said the “Help Us, Help Us” campaign was “designed to save lives by encouraging people to access NHS services at the right time and in the right way.”
They said awareness of key cancer symptoms had risen, with a record number of patients referred for tests this year after seeing their GP, while 100,000 people had been treated by a pharmacist for a minor illness on the same day. who were looking for help.
The spokesperson 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 that the health service delivered almost 30% more appointments. compared [with] the same period before the pandemic.”
Saatchi was contacted for comment but did not provide any.