The advent of patient choice in the NHS has created an opportunity for trusts to market their services to people outside their normal catchment areas.

The Department of Health is drawing up an advertising code to ensure accuracy of information and that the right budget levels are set, but the onus will be on health providers' marketing departments to reach the right people, at the right time and with the right message.

Determining which marketing channel to use could be a key decision for trusts. A draft NHS promotional code, which is in the public domain and is being used as the basis for the patient choice marketing guidelines, advises trusts to ensure that expenditure of public money on promotional activity is not excessive. It says the cost of TV promotions is "very unlikely to be justifiable".

So, what do marketing departments need to do to make sure their services come to the attention of patients within and outside their catchment area?

Direct mail

Direct mail can be a very effective way of reaching a broad range of people from different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, in both urban and rural areas.

A Royal Mail survey of delegates at last autumn's Association of Healthcare Communicators conference revealed that 60 per cent of professionals believe direct mail is the best way to communicate important healthinformation.

Some 85 per cent of those surveyed also said they thought posted reminders would significantly cut the costs incurred from missed appointments. Meanwhile, one-third said they were planning to increase the percentage of their marketing budget spent on direct mail in 2008.

The medium is clearly effective in this sector from a marketer's point of view, and it is also a popular communication channel among recipients: another recent piece of Royal Mail research found that 69 per cent of consumers prefer to receive important or sensitive messages through the post.

Moreover, the public appears to pay more attention to mail than some commentators might suggest. Research has shown that more than half of people read and retain direct mail, and the figure for those keeping material has increased in each of the last three years.

Meanwhile, people are more than twice as positive towards receiving government information through the letterbox compared with post from organisations in any other sector, so a clear majority welcome such communication.

Going online

In addition, marketers should not underestimate the power of combining mailed messages with online work. In the Association of Healthcare Communicators survey, email was the second most popular form of communication, with 24 per cent of respondents preferring to communicate with patients over the internet.

Royal Mail's own consumer research revealed 84 per cent of people agree that there is a place for both post and email from companies. More than half of confident web users prefer to be contacted by a combination of direct mail and online. Around two-thirds said they felt that email was best used for supporting or clarifying the mail they receive; six out of 10 agreed that they would prefer a company to approach them first by post, than by email.

Scalability of postal campaigns is also key - mail offers flexibility unmatched by most other marketing channels.

Messages can be tailored to allow health providers to communicate effectively with specific groups. For example, Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital trust won an award at the Association of Healthcare Communicators conference for targeting people over 70 with information on its bowel cancer screening programme. The campaign involved posting self-test kits to the homes of people in the target age range and garnered a 73 per cent response rate in its first year.

This shows that by making the best use of existing data held on individuals and groups, health service managers can make their marketing campaigns work harder to reach the right audience.

Some hospitals and trusts are reportedly considering appointing marketing agencies to help differentiate the services they offer patients. But regardless of the creative treatment of messages sent to the public, choice of communication channel will be vital if the process of persuading patients to use their facilities is to operate smoothly.