On our quinquennial, we’re looking back five years and reflecting on what’s changed – but is there anything to talk about apart from pandemic impacts?
In 2022, it turns out it’s strangely difficult to look back five years. The huge crater that the major part of the pandemic blew through 2020 and 2021 has left us all with a distorted sense of perspective. It’s difficult to spool smoothly back through 2019 and 2018, now that every recollection is coloured by hindsight of the unimaginable disruption that was just around the corner.
But I’m trying hard to look at the complete five-year picture, because that’s the period we’ve been in business. And more than ever, after the shocks of the pandemic, I want to celebrate what our sector, our clients and our Collective have managed to achieve in an extraordinary half-decade.
So much has changed since we flipped over the sign on The Difference Collective’s virtual front door to ‘Open’ in 2017 and started explaining to a curious healthcare communications audience why we didn’t plan to open a physical front door of any kind.
1. Entrepreneurship and innovation
According to the ONS, we were one of just under 360,000 new businesses founded in 2017-18. In 2021-22, over 400,000 were launched. And there was no slump in the intervening three years, with around 380,000 businesses launched in each. Entrepreneurship is alive and well in the UK.
Hats off to all those bold business starters. In five years, thousands of people have spotted opportunities and seized them. For some, it was a resourceful necessity, when their traditional jobs vanished in a closed-down world. For others, it was part of an inexorable trend, because digitisation, social change and globalisation have created new markets, new customers and different requirements. As our name suggests, the opportunity we saw in 2017 was one of working and delivering Differently as a virtual non-agency, in a market ready for innovation.
2. Portfolio careers
Evolution in the job market has also played its part in our success and in shaping a very different healthcare communications profession and resource pool. Portfolio careers are on the rise. Increasingly, workers are “keen to expand their skills and gain broader experience”, according to the Department for Education.
Our Difference Collective workforce is continually strengthened by members who want to balance two or more complementary careers. In the last five years, Difference colleagues have qualified as a dietician, a complementary therapist and a veterinary technician. Others combine their Difference communications projects with university lecturing, yoga teaching, journalism or authorship. We see this as a strength, and a huge benefit to our sector, with valuable senior talent and experience retained for clients. Difference consultants can choose how and when to work on healthcare communications projects, so they maintain their motivation and creativity, bringing extra perspectives from their broadened skills and career.
In the patient and general population, the shift to self-care has increased demand for our healthcare communication skills and resources. It’s not just a matter of pandemic necessity, when contact in medical settings was feared by many. In five years, more and more people have access to information and healthcare tools through mobiles and the web. Wearable tech is giving people new insights into their health and an ability to track their own vital signs. Home testing has proved to be viable – there’s an opportunity for other conditions and symptoms to be checked by the patient in the same way.
Specialists are available to consult digitally. Pharmacists played a vital role in supporting patients during the pandemic. GP services and hospitals are now under pressure with a backlog of patients and procedures; healthcare organisations are striving to communicate what they can offer and how they can help the public with self-care. That means explaining medical and wellbeing concepts and processes in simple and clear terms. Health literacy – both digital and traditional – has never been more important.
4. Fading health taboos
Five years have also helped us overcome squeamishness about discussing health matters that were once practically taboo. Menopause has made the headlines more and more frequently, with celebrities, politicians and healthcare providers queuing to discuss the far-reaching impact of treatments on an estimated 5.87 million women of menopausal or perimenopausal age in the UK. Perhaps that’s because for the first time, statisticians have calculated the impact on productivity and the economy of failing to treat debilitating symptoms.
Gut health, bowel cancer and prostate symptoms have fought their way out of the smallest room, with campaigners including Deborah James aka BowelBabe, Radio 1 DJ Adele Roberts and national treasure Stephen Fry discussing bowel habits, stoma care and “blood in your pee” as loudly as they can, to raise awareness and banish potentially fatal embarrassment.
The stigma of mental health issues has shrunk in the past five years, as mainstream media, educators, employers and the health sector acknowledge how wide-ranging and commonplace they are. As public awareness of all these conditions and realities increases, the health sector can provide essential information and tools to help patients identify symptoms and understand the available treatments and medications. Communication skills are vital, using every medium and moment that our omnichannel world presents to engage with audiences at the most relevant time.
The fifth big change is not the pandemic kind of contagion. In fact, it’s a contagion of kindness. Research by The University of Sussex shows that the pandemic has made people kinder. I would say it’s not just the pandemic. Global events, the environmental crisis and politics may paint a grim picture of our world in the last five years, but in testing times, collaboration and care seem to flourish. There are always acts of kindness, altruism and bravery to admire and to inspire our own actions.
Our own Collectivity flourishes because of our members’ desire to be part of a purposeful team, their generosity in sharing ideas and knowledge, their support of good causes, their empathy in encouraging and supporting colleagues and their power in pulling together to achieve more than we ever could individually.
The world of healthcare has changed greatly in the five years since The Difference Collective launched. Our agile model and talented team have enabled us to keep pace with demand and evolve our communications expertise and practice to support 106 clients. Thank you to everyone who has been part of our Difference journey and supported our innovative, virtual approach. I’m looking forward to travelling through the next five years and beyond with you all, as the healthcare landscape continues to transform.
Angie Wiles, Founder of The Difference Collective, has worked in healthcare communications for over 30 years, ultimately building one of the most successful UK healthcare consultancies. Throughout her career, she has constantly looked to do things differently and make a difference to the healthcare communications industry.