Health bosses have been accused of deploying ‘Orwellian’-tactics by misleading patients in a £400,000 publicity campaign which claims that A&E units are ‘changing’ when in fact they are closing.
Public relations specialist, M&C Saatchi, has been hired by NHS bosses in North West London to provide advice and support for the campaign which starts this week and runs over the school summer holidays giving residents just six weeks’ notice of A&E closures at Hammersmith Hospital and Central Middlesex on September 10. They will be replaced with a GP-led Urgent Care Centre treating minor injuries.
M&C Saatchi sent NHS bosses research to show that patients found the 'change' message more 'reassuring than closure'.
However, when questioned at last Tuesday’s Hammersmith & Fulham (H&F) Council Health and Social Care Policy and Accountability Committee (PAC) health officials from the CCG, including chair Dr Tim Spicer and vice-chair Dr Susan McGoldrick, told the committee that clinicians would have preferred to have used the word ‘closure’ but took advice from M&C Saatchi whom they described as their ‘professionals in public relations’.
H&F Council Leader, Cllr Stephen Cowan, said; "Using the word 'change' rather than ‘closed’ appeared to be deliberately designed to distract the public from being upset or concerned about the closure of the A&Es rather than informing them of what was happening and what was in the best interests for them and their loved ones should they ever need accident or emergency health care services."
He added that "this is negligent as the obvious and likely confusion of this approach has a clear potential to cost lives".
The Health and Social Care PAC won assurances that the full brief given to M&C Saatchi would be sent to them, as would the detailed communications outcomes M&C Saatchi had been commissioned to deliver.
Cllr Cowan said: "Saying something will change instead of closing may be more reassuring, but then there is that rather gigantic problem that it is not true. This is a highly misleading campaign George Orwell's Ministry of Truth would have been proud of. It will add to what health officials admit is already a high level of confusion about the differences between urgent care clinics and A&Es."
That likely confusion was demonstrated during H&F’s Health and Social Care PAC meeting when Dr. Mark Spencer, the Medical Director for Shaping A Healthier Future responded to questions about the choices a person might have in deciding whether to go to a proper class 1 A&E or an Urgent Care Clinic if they thought they, or a loved one, might be suffering possible symptoms of a serious medical condition such as meningitis or an possible emergency such as chest pains. Dr. Spicer asserted that the "recommendation would always be to go to an accident & emergency department." However, Sarah Garrett, a Communications Consultant for H&F Clinical Commissioning Group underlined the difficulty in an individual making that choice when she later told the PAC meeting "People don’t understand the difference between an A&E and an urgent care centre".
Cllr Cowan said; "We are against the closure of this A&E but this is also all very insightful into how these people are making decisions about our NHS. Health officials and M&C Saatchi need to come clean and explain why they’ve taken this Orwellian approach. They claim it is to inform local residents but use deliberately misleading language which is against the better judgement of clinicians and in a campaign being run over the school summer holidays when many people will be away.
"Providing people with an understanding of the right place to go in an accident or emergency should be the highest priority with this £400,000 tax-payer-funded communications campaign. Having looked at the evidence and heard their explanations, that is clearly not their goal. This demonstrates another serious failure of judgement and one that they will be held accountable for as our campaign to save our hospitals carries on".
On Thursday, two days after H&F’s Health and Social Care PAC, Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust published board papers which confirmed their proposals to demolish Charing Cross hospital and replace it with a GP-led health centre which would see:
- Closure of A&E services to be replaced with an Urgent Care Centre
- Loss of 336 acute beds and all acute surgery
- Proposal to sell of the majority of Charing Cross Hospital site.
Health officials argue that closing A&Es and centralising services at fewer hospitals will improve patient care.
However Cllr Cowan said: "What we are seeing nationally within the NHS is hugely confusing and misleading for residents. They believe that they can take away vast swathes of emergency facilities without people noticing.
"This council will not allow that to happen. We will expose what is going on at every stage and use all our influence and powers to block future plans to demolish Charing Cross Hospital and take away its emergency services."