News | 3/08/2020

How can private healthcare support the NHS?

Posted by James Dempster

There is no doubt that COVID-19 has got more people thinking about their own health than ever before, with the number of people considering private healthcare treatment and insurance doubling since the outbreak began[1].

With 12 years’ commercial experience in the private healthcare and digital marketing sectors, our Managing Director, James Dempster, founded Fox&Bear partly to help healthcare organisations more effectively communicate their offering, whilst enabling new patients to discover all of the options available to them.

How has uptake of private health services changed?

When I first started working at a private hospital, the general referral path used to be reliant upon a GP making a referral to a clinician of the GP’s choice. During the course of working there, however, we were seeing far more patients researching consultants ahead of their GP consultations and asking for referrals to certain consultants.

From that time, and since running Fox&Bear, I’ve seen not just a rise in patients with private medical insurance, but also the growth of the self-pay market – people that have saved money to go private for certain treatments.

It makes sense. There will be people that don’t want to wait for operations and treatment, as well as those who can afford to pay privately, but of course that still leaves people that don’t know about the various payment options because these are still relatively new.

What do you think the misconceptions around private healthcare are?

I think there can be a misconception that self-pay healthcare ‘takes away’ from the NHS. Before I worked in the industry, I was very unaware of how the NHS and private worked together.

There are needs for private hospitals to offer NHS services, but equally there are always services that will have to be NHS only; neurosurgery, midwifery and antenatal services, for example, as well as complex cardiac services that need a level of regulatory standards that private hospitals cannot always offer.

There is an opportunity for the two to work closely together. It’s not about pitting them against each other. I think private healthcare needs to stop being seen (on occasion)  as the enemy, as it’s ultimately there to support.

What needs to change?

I think the misconception largely stems around the connotations of the term ‘private’ in healthcare, although in recent years this has been more widely communicated as self-pay. Hospitals, clinics and practices have realised that nurturing that trust with patients is key, but I think there is scope to take this further, really strengthening their messaging to give all of the self-pay options more visibility.

The private market has probably been a bit late to join this and there have been ethical questions around 0% finance for healthcare procedures. But the fact that you can buy a car to arguably improve your life, if you’ve been waiting for a knee operation and potentially missed out on social interactions and better quality of life, why shouldn’t you be able to pay this way and get back to what you love faster?

What do you wish people knew about private healthcare?

One of the things that I’m most proud of being British in is the NHS. Everyone pays into a combined pot, so you know you can come here and be looked after by fantastic experts. But with cuts, it’s bursting at the seams, which it already was pre-coronavirus.

We’re a growing nation with increasing burden on our healthcare service and I think it’s fair to say that we’re only on the brink of some big mental health issues to come for a lot of people within the next year. We’ve seen just how important the frontline staff are, and hopefully now they’re getting the recognition they deserve, but the NHS cannot support this alone and both sides need to play their part.

One of the first things to look at is that pretty much all consultants that practice privately will also have to practice NHS elsewhere as well, so it’s not as binary as you might think. We have to remember that these are highly skilled people with life or death situations in their hands every day – so I’d argue that they deserve the money they can earn privately.

However, when you look at nursing and those that come across to the private sector, they are trained by the NHS and do often have to make a binary choice between the two, bank staff excluded. This means the NHS have trained and upskilled NHS staff that they might potentially lose if they move over to private institutions – essentially working more favourable hours for a better salary. This is something that I believe should be looked at in future.

Where do you see the opportunities within healthcare?

Lockdown shows that there are so many parts of our lives that we’ve taken for granted for so long, or not had a choice over. Long commutes to jobs in the city, set working hours and even what food we can get delivered in our area, were all things we wouldn’t have even considered as changeable, when suddenly all of that was taken away from us or thrown up in the air.

This has opened up opportunities in all sorts of ways, from working patterns to new services. Who is to say that workplaces can’t offer more flexibility now that people are working from home? With different technology and processes replacing what we knew before the pandemic, patients will be more much more aware of (and maybe even prefer) their options, where appropriate, for things like virtual appointments and consultations.

How can we, as marketing experts, help?

Our job now is to help those private hospitals make sure that their messages are clearly communicated to the public, that we’re promoting them ethically and that all of their options are promoted.

We live in an age where patients are expecting transparency alongside choice. There will be far more people looking for this information now, meaning far more people knowing that this information can be found online. Therefore, it’s more important than ever to have a clear tone of voice and USPs to set that distinction; a strong and authentic set of values to communicate transparently and up to date information about your consultants to demonstrate authority and expertise. All of that, underpinned with tailored digital strategies, means getting the right message into the right hands at the right time.

At Fox&Bear, we specialise in maximising the visibility of hospitals, healthcare clinics and wellness centres to drive enquiries and help new patients discover their options. We’re passionate about empowering healthcare organisations to keep pace with the challenges and changes of a rapidly evolving sector. Get in touch to see how we can help.