The National Pandemic Flu Service is due to be launched this week. Essentially it's a phone line and website which tells people if they have swine flu and, if they do, directs them to treatment.
Apparently having one phone line that you can call to ask questions about your health, as well as a nationwide primary care system, isn't enough, and we need something else as well. I especially love the indignant tone from the Lib Dems' health spokesman, Norman Lamb, complaining about the 'additional burden' on GPs of 'a large number of calls', as if he can't believe that people are so stupid as to be phoning up their GPs when they feel ill. I mean, next they'll be onto the police just because they've been stabbed.
In amid all this urgency around public health, there are surely a couple of important points about good communication. The first is that innovation should strengthen brands, not detract from them. How will the NPFS relate to NHS Direct, the online and phone-based health advice service that already exists? Unless some good reasons are given, it will seem very much like NHS Direct is a brand that's fine for cases of man-flu, sniffles and sprained thumbs, but incapable of coping whenever the pathogens hit the fan. Once the NPFS folds, the lingering perception of the NHS Direct as a sort of telephonic mecca for timewasters will do it no good and may discourage people from using it.
The second point is that communication needs to be consistent and coordinated. Not in the sense of endless messages pushed out on every channel, but in the sense that if, at any given time, I want to know what I should do if I feel ill, I should be able to find out quite straightforwardly. Better yet, I should already know. There is already too little clarity about the respective roles of NHS Direct and GPs. Which should I go to if I think I've twisted my ankle? When the NPFS arrives, if I think I have flu-like symptoms, which of three ports of call do I choose? If I don't know by the time I fall ill, someone has failed.
Coca-Cola, which basically sells sweet brown fizzy water, is great at differentiating its brands. Everybody knows the difference between Coca-Cola, Diet Coke and Coke Zero - why the three exist, whom they're targeted at, and what their branding looks and feels like. If they feel the need to put so much effort in to sell three strains of almost identical liquid in tins, surely the imperative is far stronger when it comes to giving people advice and treatment which could save their lives.
# Alex Steer (20/07/2009)