NHS England ad campaign hopes to change behaviours and relieve service

<span>Photograph: Julian Claxton/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Julian Claxton/Alamy

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”.

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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.

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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.