NHS England ad campaign hopes to change behaviours and relieve service

Exclusive: The Help Us Help You campaign by M&C Saatchi, worth up to £28.6m, encourages people to cut down on in-person GP visits

Plans have been drawn up to avoid the NHS being overwhelmed this winter by encouraging patients to “behave in ways they’ve not experienced before” and cut down on in-person GP visits, the Guardian can reveal.

An advertising campaign devised by M&C Saatchi, awarded a contract by NHS England worth up to £28.6m, suggested ways people could be encouraged to settle for a virtual appointment or visit a pharmacist instead.

To help reduce the mounting pressures facing medics, documents show the agency also advised patients should be told that seeking help via alternative routes instead of rushing to A&E would help the NHS “work better for everyone”.

The three-year contract is for the ad campaign “Help Us Help You”, which seeks to change people’s behaviour when accessing healthcare to reduce pressures on the NHS and maintain capacity.

In the face of strikes by nurses and further possible stoppages by other hospital workers, health bosses are battling to avoid the NHS being overwhelmed by the operations backlog, worker shortages and delays to long-promised social care reforms.

Saatchi’s bid to run the campaign quoted Einstein, saying he “once remarked the definition of insanity was ‘doing the same thing over and expecting a different result’”. The agency said because of this, much of its work would build on existing approaches but about 20% would go into “exploring new ways of achieving the objective”.

A copy of its winning bid, seen by the Guardian, said the NHS was facing “unprecedented pressures”, evident in waiting lists, increased demand, morale and funding challenges.

“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.”

Saatchi’s bid said satisfaction with the NHS had reached “an unprecedented low” but that support for a public health service had “never been higher”. It added: “People’s willingness to help ‘our NHS’ is stronger than ever … This brief ’s key challenge is harnessing that pro sentiment into behaviour.”

Nine objectives were laid out for the ad campaign, which was designed to “influence audiences en masse”.

They included: people who want to go to A&E first 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 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”.

Saatchi said the “ease of speaking” to a GP by phone or video might lead people to feel there was a “good reason to raise that little thing they’ve been shrugging off”.

It added that people with possible cancer symptoms and those searching for information online should be encouraged to “follow up their concern and see their GP”.

The ad campaign contract lasts for three years, capped at a cost of £19.9m, but could be extended for another 12 months for an additional £8.6m limit, which would take the total to a maximum of about £28.6m. However, it is understood that the NHS expects the final cost to be a fraction of that figure.

Wes Streeting, Labour’s shadow health secretary, said patients were already cutting back on in-person GP appointments – “not because they don’t need them but they’re finding 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 which go undiagnosed until it’s too late.

“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.”

Streeting vowed a Labour government would oversee “the biggest expansion of medical training in the history of the NHS”, paid for by abolishing the non-dom tax status.

In October, GPs delivered a total of 36.1m appointments – an increase of 20.1% on the previous month and significantly higher than prior to the Covid pandemic. Almost half a million more patients were also checked for cancer between March 2021 and August 2022, compared with the same period before the pandemic.

A spokesperson for the health service said the “Help Us, Help You” campaign was “designed to save lives by encouraging people to access NHS services at the right time and in the right way”.

They said it had increased awareness of key cancer symptoms, with record numbers 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 as seeking 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 the health service delivering almost 30% more appointments compared [with] the same period before the pandemic.”

Saatchi was contacted for comment, but did not provide one.

Contributor

Aubrey Allegretti

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Ambulance service in England ‘in meltdown’ as one in four 999 calls missed in October
NHS heads warn patients dying every day as A&E logjams cause 169,000 hours of crew delays in worst-ever month

Denis Campbell and Pamela Duncan

23, Nov, 2022 @7:38 PM

Article image
Thérèse Coffey: convivial pragmatist inherits health service in crisis
Coffey, a close friend of new PM, faces daunting task as she becomes third health and social care secretary in two months

Denis Campbell Health policy editor

06, Sep, 2022 @6:32 PM

Article image
Keir Starmer asks Sunak to apologise for ‘lethal chaos’ in ambulance service
Labour leader uses PMQs to focus on waiting times and real-life example of woman who died in Plymouth

Peter Walker Political correspondent

18, Jan, 2023 @1:17 PM

Article image
NHS urges use of GP, chemist or 111 service during ambulance strike
People in England and Wales advised to request ambulance only if a life is at risk

Denis Campbell Health policy editor

10, Jan, 2023 @7:13 PM

Article image
Long Covid: ‘fraction’ of sufferers getting NHS help in England
Only 60,000 of an estimated 277,000 people have been seen by specialist service, figures show

Carmen Aguilar García and Pamela Duncan

27, Oct, 2022 @5:00 AM

Article image
Nurse recruitment drive launched by NHS England amid acute shortages
Campaign celebrates nursing as varied and fulfilling, but union says only higher pay will make lasting difference

Denis Campbell Health policy editor

24, Oct, 2022 @5:00 AM

Article image
NHS midlife health check to be moved online in England
Pilot scheme under way in Cornwall, with hope that self-testing will ease pressure on NHS

Kevin Rawlinson

05, Dec, 2022 @11:08 AM

Article image
Hospitals in England taking care of record number of patients
Across country last month, almost 14,000 people were ready to be discharged but could not be sent home or into care

Pamela Duncan and Matthew Weaver

29, Dec, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
Millions in England to be invited for Covid booster from Monday
NHS launches autumn drive with jabs offered first to care home staff and residents, and housebound people

Guardian staff and agency

03, Sep, 2022 @7:44 AM

Article image
GPs in England to send suspected cancer patients directly for tests
Scheme starting this month is aimed at improving Britain’s poor record on early diagnosis

Denis Campbell Health policy editor

16, Nov, 2022 @12:01 AM