Should the Ambulance Service be spending money on marketing?
We have had the great privilege of working with one of the UK’s Ambulance Services over the past few months on a project about developing NHS communications and have been struck with what a difficult job these organisations have. Budgets are tight – and getting tighter – there is a national shortage of people with the required skills, pay has been effectively frozen since 2010, and demand through 999 increases every year, as there are more of us, we are getting older, and many people regard 999 as a ‘right’ and call when it’s not an emergency. All this is happening while there is a major drive to develop ‘joined-up care’ by encouraging the health and social care systems to work together; this is a major driver of change in how these services are delivered.
Faced with this, Ambulance Services can’t just increase their resources to provide ever more trips to A&E. But how much can and should they do to manage down demand? They already do a lot: ‘hear and treat’, for example, means that when you call 999 someone will assess what you say and, if possible, provide the advice you need rather than have you taken to A&E. Can they do more? Yes they can, but what should they focus on? Here are a few ideas to optimise this aspect of NHS communications, using marketing thinking and techniques which are very familiar:
Each of the Ambulance Services owns hundreds of high profile vehicles, collectively driving hundreds of millions of miles each year (ambulances are mainly mobile these days, rather than sitting in ambulance stations) Some services have started to carry messages, and we can see that over time this can become an excellent way to improve public understanding of how to use the service. They can also carry public health messages on behalf of their healthcare partners, to build awareness of simple ways to reduce the risk of needing to visit A&E. And this is virtually free for them!
Market Segmentation Analysis
Usage patterns of ambulance services vary dramatically between consumer segments, so it is possible to work with high risk groups to reduce demand, and some of this is happening, but perhaps not enough. For example, the most frequent reason for calling an ambulance is when an older person suffers a fall. Working with care homes, both patients and staff, on fall prevention and mitigation, can reduce the pressure on the service.
Another market segment which can deliver long-term benefits is school children. Some services are already working with schools to deliver first aid training and build awareness of what the ambulance service is for. This can become a life skill for these children, helping them to manage their own emergencies and any they encounter in everyday life.
Customer self help
In many industries where service is a key feature, transformation of the service offering and the provider cost base has happened by enabling customers to do more for themselves. In healthcare, the growth in telecare and telehealth means that patients are encouraged and enabled to participate in managing their own condition, rather than just relying on healthcare professionals. Similarly, ICT and energy providers are also offering increasingly complex menus when calling service centre numbers. You’ll always get through to a trained person quickly on 999, but could 111 be partially automated? Can Ambulance Services provide advice remotely, via apps with first aid help? Can they train or educate more people to know about and use the defibrillators which they are increasingly installing in high traffic areas?
An area where the services need to be careful: ‘unique’ is not a goal of branding for an ambulance service, as the public want reassurance on what they can expect, but distinctiveness and a brand personality would be effective both for patients and in areas like recruitment.
In conclusion: Ambulance Services will, and should, always be led and guided by clinicians, but can increasingly benefit from well applied marketing tools and techniques.