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Marketing Code may signal hospital 'predation'

NHS will be able to market their service provision to patients under a new Code from the Department of Health

In what is seen by some to be a natural step in developing a competitive marketplace, NHS hospitals will soon be permitted to advertise the merits of their service provision directly to patients, under a new marketing Code to be released by the Department of Health (DoH).

The current NHS payment-by-results system means that it is in a hospital's interest to attract patients, particularly those who suffer from conditions for which a hospital is noted for achieving desirable clinical outcomes relative to other hospitals. Under the new hospital marketing Code, NHS providers will be able to communicate their comparative strengths and expertise directly to prospective patients.

It is understood that while there may be no strict limit imposed upon a hospital's wherewithal to market to would-be patients, the DoH is expected to warn establishments that ìdisproportionate expenditureî could damage the reputation of the NHS. Indeed it has been suggested that television and cinema advertising are too expensive to be viable, and that most hospitals will market their services chiefly to local General Practitioners and, through websites, to patients. An increasing number of Foundation and NHS Trusts are reportedly employing bespoke marketing staff.

However, the debate thrown up by the anticipated scheme has elicited fervent criticism from some quarters which have cast doubt upon the British public's wish for, and ability to deal with, this type of information. According to a recent survey conducted by YouGov for the NHS Together Alliance for health unions and the Trades Union Congress (TUC), whereby 2,022 adults were polled on their views of competition in the NHS marketplace (including the issue of advertising and marketing), nearly 75 per cent of voters rejected such a spiralling of rivalry between hospitals.

ìVoters would rather money was spent on patient care than ads,î said TUC general secretary, Brendan Barber - a view shared and expressed strongly by the British Medical Association. ìAdvertising is a logical conclusion of the government's mistaken view that the key to NHS reform is to treat hospitals like competing businesses,î added Barber.

He also noted that the `get treated at St Joe's' approach ìgoes against what the British people hold dear about the NHSî, calling for healthcare managers to work together rather than fight over patients.

Author and industry commentator, Roy Lilley, holder of the position of Trustee of the Patient Choice, believes that while the government's intention to create ìa mixed economy of `badged' and franchised suppliersî may serve to confuse patients, unsure of how to handle the proposition of choosing their hospital if one consequence of the payment-by-results system is that hospitals are forced to act more as predators on the supply side, it might drive useful information into the public domain.

If the information is tantamount to `come and be treated at this hospital because our MRSA rate is lower than the one down the road', or `our clinical outcomes are better', then ìI'm all for it!î

He added, however that ìanything less will be a waste of moneyî.

The DoH told Pharmaceutical Marketing that it had not yet decided on a release date for the new hospital marketing Code, though speculation by the BBC, which has seen a draft version, is that it will be in the week commencing November 27, 2006.

30th September 2008

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