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Cutting a fine line

The government is finding it tough to tread the fine line between offering help and advice to people, and interfering in their lives

Here's a combined medical education and PR challenge: how do you communicate a healthcare message to the masses without eliciting indifference or even resistance by coming across as interfering, or portraying yourself as a big brother-type guardian?

That is the challenge facing the country's government, as it attempts to convey to people up and down the country that taking regular exercise, eating the right kinds of foods and looking after their health are things they really should do. But something the government cannot do is tell people how to live their lives.

It's a tough conundrum, but not insolvable. The problem is that people will only change their behaviour when they decide themselves that the ends will justify the means, but often they need to `be told' in the first instance, otherwise they won't always admit that it is the beer, burgers and bangers that are the root cause of being unable to see their feet, and in fact little to do with water retention or `genes'.

It's difficult trying to balance not becoming a `nanny state' which tells everyone what to do, and trying to educate people that there are real changes that they can make to improve their health and fitness, the Prime Minister told the BBC. He added, however, that the government would still risk being seen as interfering if it led to a long-term improvement in people's health.
It's our job to put the facts before people.

The state of Britain
Certain aspects of this challenge have been highlighted by the Health Profile of England report, published in October, which revealed that the `north-south' health divide in the UK is still significant. Northern regions are still `marred' by lower life expectancy, due in part to higher obesity rates and more smoking-related deaths.

Life expectancy across the UK is rising in all groups, however the report reveals that women in the north live on average one year less than their southern counterparts. This gap is increased to two years for men.

Health minister, Caroline Flint, told the press that the government will support parents to embrace healthy eating and active lifestyles, in a bid to help today's children avoid slipping into the same trap that has led Britain to have the highest obesity rates in Europe.

However, the hurdle remains as how to best convince the public without fuelling `anti-nanny' sentiments, which some social commentators believe are running high at the moment.

The NHS needs to do it in the same way that a credible, successful marketing outfit does it, by talking to individuals and groups of individuals in a language those specific customer segments will understand and respond to, says Martin Ellis, chairman and managing director of the Medicom Group.

However, a lot of government, as with major institutions, talks only in one language and we're not all the same, we respond in different ways.

He adds: One of the fundamentals to any successful patient compliance programme is to understand the psychology and drivers of the individuals, and by categorising those individuals as personality types you can work out what type of message they will respond to, and the best way to deliver those messages.

Dr Tim Crayford, president of the Association of the Directors of Public Health, believes that the government's decision to provide information and advice to the public, while tricky, will pay off in the long run.

Ellis sees the solution within a specific pharma-NHS-government tie up. Those groups [NHS and government] should recognise that they can learn a lot from pharma firms about how to successfully market and communicate messages. As there are in-built vehicles within the NHS to do that, why don't we work together?

Some might contend that pharma is too close to the sharp commercial world to help, but Ellis is sure of the opposite: It's about time the pharma industry stood up to its critics - no it's not a charity but it can also do an awful lot of good, especially working with NHS and goverment.

2nd September 2008


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