The coronavirus pandemic is abating in the UK, and the NHS is looking to reset for the post-Covid era. Health tech suppliers should be looking to do the same, says Susan Venables, client services director at Highland Marketing.
I have been thinking about the way that health tech companies are perceived and the process that they need to go through when they are preparing to communicate with the NHS and social care organisations.
Whether you are an established supplier in the market with an upgrade or a start-up with a new idea, it’s tempting to think that all you need to do is to tell people in the service about it. Get the features on your website. Build a press release around your sales messages.
But I don’t think that will wash anymore. Over the past 15-months, I think there has been a significant shift in the kind of communications the people in charge of healthcare IT want to receive. They don’t just want to hear about business doing business; they want to hear what it is doing for healthcare, for society, for the environment.
At the same time, I think there has been a significant shift in the way they evaluate communications. Before Covid, we were told that we had “had enough of experts”. During the pandemic, we have done nothing but listen to experts and evaluate the evidence they have put before us.
So, I think people want to hear compelling stories; and they also want to see the evidence behind them. These changes mean there needs to be another significant shift: in the way that health tech vendors present themselves. To succeed, it won’t be enough to revert to doing what they were doing pre-Covid.
What has changed?
Partnership working: When the coronavirus pandemic arrived in spring 2020, the NHS had to respond very rapidly. One of the features of the first few weeks of the pandemic was the way in which chief information officers and their clinical colleagues worked with suppliers to reconfigure their systems to track and treat patients with Covid-19.
At the same time, they made impressive strides in rolling out remote working and collaboration platforms, setting up virtual clinics, and enabling remote consultations. Our advisory board has identified many enablers for this – strong leadership, flat decision making, simplified procurement processes, and clinical focus all played a part.
But so did a new spirit of working in partnership with technology companies; and I expect that to continue. Health and care organisations are now looking at three challenges: how to tackle the huge backlog of elective care; how to prepare for the third wave of Covid that may hit alongside flu next winter; and how to build on that shift to digital-first.
That means they are going to be looking for technology that can address those challenges, and smart businesses will be the ones that can tell them how their approach and products do that. They will also be the ones who can evidence what they are saying and point to customers willing to back them up.
As it happens, Highland Marketing has always advised clients that the “hard sell” does not work in health tech. But the past 15-months have strengthened our conviction that communications with this market need to be transparent and evidence-based, and that case studies and press releases need to put customers front and centre.
Social responsibility: Society has also adapted to Covid in ways that are only just starting to become clear. There is a greater awareness of inequality, and many more people have volunteered during the pandemic or given to charity.
This has pushed the government into promising to ‘build back better’ while, in the NHS, the Integration and Innovation white paper urges organisations think about their economic impact on ‘places’. In health tech, we are seeing the devolved administrations and the more advanced English NHS regions putting social benefit requirements into their IT tenders, and that will accelerate as integrated care systems come on stream.
At the same time, in a tighter labour market, potential employees will be looking for companies that value their work and their desire to ‘give back’ to the wider community.
One way and another, I expect Highland Marketing to be advising clients on how to tell a good story about social responsibility, particularly through their corporate communications and social media. And, again, that story must be well-founded, genuine, and supported with evidence that will stand up to the new mood of evaluation and scrutiny.
Climate change: Business has also been changed by the pandemic. Many, many companies – including Highland Marketing – shifted to remote working last spring and never shifted back. We have all seen the benefits of not commuting or spending days travelling to large conferences and there is a growing expectation that the future will be home-based or blended working and part-live part-streamed events.
There are significant environmental benefits to these approaches, which are feeding into a wider awareness of climate issues and the need to start preparing for a net zero future. This will all be discussed at the COP26 conference in Glasgow this autumn, but it is already a galvanising concern for the NHS, which has committed to become the first net zero healthcare system by 2040.
I expect the demand for action on climate change to have a profound impact on health tech companies, which will be asked how their services and products can help the NHS to meet its climate targets, and how their own operations are addressing – or adding to – global warming.
A rallying cry
The transition from the pandemic to the new world is not likely to be easy. There are demands from all sides for government support to make good the damage of the past year and half. We don’t yet know how the changes that Covid-19 has forced on society and business will play out.
Our advisory board has noted that many of the factors that enabled the NHS to adopt healthcare technology at speed and scale during the pandemic have changed. There is concern that acute and primary care services could ‘slip back’ into old ways of working in response to the demand and financial pressures they are facing.
I think that would be inexcusable. After all the pain and hardship of the past few months, we should all be working to maintain the gains that were made. Health IT companies need to play their part by reflecting on what has changed during the pandemic, on how they need to respond, and on how they are going to communicate that to the market.
Highland Marketing is looking forward to helping companies and organisations with the strategic and tactical communications advice that they need to navigate the new normal; and to help their partners to succeed in the post-Covid era.