Cookie policy notice

By continuing to use this site you agree to our cookies policy below:
Since 26 May 2011, the law now states that cookies on websites can ony be used with your specific consent. Cookies allow us to ensure that you enjoy the best browsing experience.

This site is intended for health professionals only

At the heart of general practice since 1960

Turning people into patients

  • Print
  • Comments (6)
  • Save

The NHS England campaign ‘The Earlier the Better’ truly baffles me. I have read through the advice to patients, and the document explaining its purpose and justification - I remain perplexed, puzzled by how on earth anyone could think this would help and by the reversal of years of public health information encompassed within its message.

The earlier the better is a seductive strapline in healthcare - and it works well for some conditions, such as meningitis or a heart attack - but it is a peculiar mantra to apply with such a blanket approach. For instance, one of the key pieces of advice this campaign delivers is that if you have a cold you should tell your family, or speak to a pharmacist before it gets worse - the earlier the better. Really? Haven’t we spent years trying to teach people that colds will get better on their own, don’t need treatment and cannot be treated anyway? How, exactly, can a pharmacist help to ‘stop it getting worse’? Sure, they can help with symptom relief for a self-limiting illness, but where is the need to urge people to go early for symptom relief? ‘Fed up with your cold, why not see a pharmacist?’ might have been a more realistic campaign slogan.

The aim of the campaign, apparently, is to reduce winter pressures on the NHS - in particular trying to prevent the elderly from ending up in hospital with respiratory illness. There is nothing a pharmacist can issue without a prescription that will prevent an elderly person developing a secondary pneumonia when they have a viral illness - so the best they can do is suggest someone sees their GP to consider antibiotics. There is a point where timely use of antibiotics might prevent a hospital admission, but even here the earlier the better is simply not true. Treat every cold in the over 65s with antibiotics and the harms of over-using such drugs will outweigh the small number of pneumonias you prevent - a health message that every cold needs prompt action is simply misleading and could be harmful.

For a long while I have been concerned that, as a nation, we have lost our nerve when it comes to assessing our own health. I am confronted by this whenever I see a child bouncing around my surgery room, afflicted by a cold but clearly not unwell, and am asked to ‘check them out, just in case’; or someone is brought to me within an hour of a minor injury or the lightest bump to the head for the same reason. I don’t mind doing this, but I wonder how we could better empower people to assess their own health and feel more confident in their ability to tell when seeing a doctor will be helpful, and when they are absolutely fine on their own. However we do this I’m quite sure that this campaign, with its emphasis on seeking advice from a health professional as soon as you feel even vaguely unwell, is not the way.

What is more, the campaign is mind-numbingly simplistic in its understanding of the causative factors leading to poor health, especially in the elderly. Take the advice on keeping warm, for instance. Of course cold weather is a significant factor in morbidity and mortality in the elderly, but are we really to believe that the major factor influencing the impact of cold weather on the elderly is that no-one has ever suggested they wrap up warm? Might not fuel poverty, social isolation, loneliness and mental health problems have a little more to do with it? And as for eating well as a way to stay healthy - do we really want to insult the over 65s by suggesting that they haven’t lived long enough to work that one out for themselves?

The problem with this campaign is that while the health advice is relatively innocuous, the message that will stick will be the strapline. People who were perfectly happy to care for themselves will see their pharmacist ‘just in case’; pharmacists, good as they are will refer some of these people to their GP ‘just in case’, and another person with a self-limiting illness will have been turned into a patient, and will go home with the belief that they needed to see a doctor, and a little less empowered to care for themselves the next time.

Dr Martin Brunet is a GP in Guildford and programme director of the Guildford GPVTS. You can tweet him @DocMartin68

Readers' comments (6)

  • David Bush

    Nail firmly hit on head!

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Great writing and valid points as ever Martin, but to play devil's advocate haven't I just read an email from NHS England to say influenza is here and we can use Tamiflu/Relenza for the early stages of flu-like illness in at risk groups? Another question altogether over whether these prevent secondary infection... but raises the issue that we have antivirals at our disposal now too, apparently, not just antibiotics...

    Wonder if Big Pharma had a hand in this latest campaign or is that too conspiracy theorist...?

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Wonderful advice. Spread your cold germs to all and sundry via surgery waiting rooms. Somebody's drumming up trade.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Very well said, Martin. This campaign is exactly the opposite of what we desparately need. Yes, we need to encourage many to present not hide worrying symptoms. However, scaring the "normally well" can only increase competition for appointments and restrict access for those whom Medicine could help.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Reduce demand and cut costs as budgets need balaning message to Health Professionals.

    Stoke up demand to ever increasing levels along with public expectation on the other.

    Blame GPs when cold not fixed immediately, as GPs not caring for their sick patients.

    Politics and DOH policy in a nutshell.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Perhaps we just need wards that are able to admit, treat and arrange early appropriate discharge?

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

Have your say

  • Print
  • Comments (6)
  • Save