Agencies gear up for NHS ‘ads to patients’

Advertising agencies are gearing up to pitch for National Health Service (NHS) providers, as the Government gets ready to allow hospitals to compete for patients in April.

Publication of the long-awaited Department of Health marketing code, which will allow NHS Trusts to advertise to patients, is understood to be imminent and follows a consultation process that began in late 2006.

The NHS is currently barred from competing, but the introduction of patient choice could encourage hospitals to advertise direct to patients and compete on the basis of their record on such things as cleanliness, waiting times and death rates.

But sources suggest the code will ban television and cinema advertising because any disproportionate expenditure is likely to damage the reputation of the NHS. It is understood the Government could set a limit on advertising spend to stop money that should be spent on patients being used on marketing and advertising.

Patients currently have limited choice of which hospital they attend in consultation with their GP. Under the new payment-by-results system, hospitals are being given funds per patient treated, meaning they are faced with the need to attract patients to prevent funding going elsewhere.

But the plan to attract patients through advertising has already been criticised by the British Medical Association and trade unions, who say the money should be spent on healthcare.

The marketing code comes as a growing number of foundations and NHS Trusts appoint marketing directors and business development directors.

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