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‘Healthcare is somewhat different from shopping’

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We’ve known for a while that health service managers would like the NHS to function the way proper ‘businesses’ like supermarkets do. From a managerial perspective, it lacks a little something – like balloons, for example, and the nice ca-ching noise the cash register makes

We’ve known for a while that health service managers would like the NHS to function the way proper ‘businesses’ like supermarkets do. From a managerial perspective, it lacks a little something – like balloons, for example, and the nice ca-ching noise the cash register makes.

Hospitals and particularly GP practices may have reluctantly allowed in some advertising and, in the case of hospitals, the odd burger joint and sock shop. But in the main they remain a bit old-fashioned, failing to fully exploit the ‘customer’ once they are actually ‘in store’ so to speak.

The supermarkets have it off to a tee. The customer walks in and is greeted by a smiling woman offering free samples of sugar-free doughnuts. They accept and are happy, so are primed to spend. They gather what they require and other things they don’t require but are nicely packaged. They may benefit from splendid two-for-one offers on Halloween hats and barbecue coal, while making note of the special offers available to the first 1,000 people who log on to www.bakewelltartsaregreat.com. They leave happy, if poorer, and will be back next week.

If only GP surgeries were like that. As people enter, a smiling woman in a hat can offer them a free blood pressure check. The customer will peruse the services and select a GP doing an offer whereby you’ll get a guaranteed prescription, two diagnoses and a rich tea biscuit. On your way out, as you collect your reward points, you will wander through various shopping opportunities, ranging from aromatherapy candles to sweatshirts with a picture of the practice nurse on the back. The whole thing will be pleasurable and, eventually, profitable. You will be back – and next time you’ll bring your credit card.

A Midlands trust is building new surgeries with a view to franchising out the premises to single-practice GPs in a similar fashion to a shopping centre. ‘We have a lot to learn from supermarkets,’ they said, before running out of oven chips. Doctors acknowledge this may work if you are selling T-shirts or baked potatoes but maintain – much to the apparent chagrin of the ‘bosses’ – that healthcare is a bit different from shopping.

There is no use in arguing about it. These people believe that the NHS will be better if we imagine our services are commodities, like garlic bread. If we cost, package and deliver treatment, people will be happier. Who knows, they may be right.

Except mostly patients don’t want the packaging as much as expertise and they don’t want the sense that the treatment is dependent on what they might give or pay. They want something unconditional and consistent – no-strings-attached care.

We all have something to learn, even from supermarkets. It’s also the case that nurses and doctors have something to teach them. Shame nobody ever talks about that.

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