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Don't rest on your laurels – publicise the profession

GPs recently suggested that public relations guru Max Clifford be hired to boost the profession's image – Dr James Gillgrass thinks a serious point is at issue here

A MORI poll published in March confirmed the high trust in which doctors are held. This poll, carried out before implementation of the new contract, reflected the views of patients who have been accustomed, in general practice at least, to having their own doctor.

The new contract brings a new era of general practice and with it comes the new age of the family practice rather than the family doctor. What effect will this have on the trust that the public have in the medical profession? Will patients place the same degree of trust in their family practice as they have done in their family doctor?

At a time of such significant change it is vital that GPs do not rest on their laurels and expect patients to accept without question the move away from the traditional model of general practice to the new model of primary care provision. Patients are bound to have concerns about the way in which the changes brought about by the new contract will effect provision of their health care.

Concerns about having a family doctor, getting an appointment with their doctor, being seen by a nurse for a problem previously dealt with by a doctor, home visits and out-of-hours care will be foremost in their minds. The increasing sophistication and knowledge of patients must be seen as both a threat and an opportunity.

New era, new approaches

General practice must seek to capitalise on recent changes and promote itself to the public to ensure the trust built up over many years is not lost. Publicity and general practice are not terms that sit happily together, but a new era needs new approaches.

Publicity needs to happen at all levels. At an individual and practice level GPs must ensure their staff and patients are kept fully informed of the changes within their practices. The reasons for the changes must be fully explained and above all the benefits and advantages to patients must be well publicised. Patients are the greatest ally of GPs and the need to ensure the quality of service is well publicised should not be underestimated.

General practice must develop the opportunity to work with PCOs to publicise work that is being carried out in primary care. The press office at a PCO must be encouraged to publicise the benefits and qualities of general practice rather than, as is so often the case, simply responding to criticism of those services.

A regular dialogue to develop good working relationships with local journalists is vital to ensure it is the 'good story' that catches their interest rather than the 'bad'.

Similarly, at a national level more must be done to publicise the work done in general practice. Press releases from the BMA, for example, tend to be reactive rather than proactive. The development of a co-ordinated communications strategy to publicise general practice is one that needs to be professionally led to realise the full benefits of such an approach. This in itself raises questions about who should lead on a project of this magnitude and who should pay for it.

The BMA is an obvious solution but does it have the capability to deliver on a project of this magnitude? Perhaps an independent marketing organisation would be a better solution.

Steps must be taken urgently to address the question of publicity for the profession before the high level of trust enjoyed by doctors for so long is lost and with it the ability to develop the opportunities that arise from implementation of the new contract. Another MORI poll next year would indicate the success of such a strategy.

James Gillgrass is joint chief executive of Sussex and Surrey LMCs

Desirable publicity initiatives

lGPs must keep staff and patients informed about new contract changes

lReasons for new contract changes must be explained, together with benefits, to patients

lGPs must collaborate with PCOs

to publicise work carried out in primary care

lPCOs' press offices must bang the drum for general practice

lGood links with local journalists must be formed and maintained

lBMA press office must become

as proactive as possible on behalf of GPs

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