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Using social media to improve patient care

Marc Schmid and Dr Ruth Chambers explain how practices in Stoke-on-Trent are making use of social media to educate and engage with patients.

'If we want to influence the conversations patients are having online we have to be part of it' (Picture: iStock)
'If we want to influence the conversations patients are having online we have to be part of it' (Picture: iStock)

Technology enabled care provides practices with opportunities to improve the quality of care their patients receive, as well as reducing costs and demands on their services.

In Stoke-on-Trent we believe that practices can use social media as one of their modes of technology enabled care. Patients in 20 or so of our 52 practices are now using social media to talk to each other about health-related issues. This may range from positive discussions about leisure and health services that are running in their area or complaints about local hospitals or GP access.

Why should practices use social media?

If we want to influence the conversations patients are having online we can't do that if we are sat outside looking in – our GPs and practice teams have to be part of it.

Although we may be nervous about our practice having a Facebook page, the fact that any of our patients can leave a comment about us online, which can be seen by other patients, makes whether we want to use the internet or not, irrelevant.

With this in mind our CCG supported practices to take the plunge with social media 18 months ago, and we have not looked back since. We started small – just eight practices – and sought the help of an external social enterprise organisation to help us set up and build our audience. Once we were up and running, word got round other practices and more of them have joined in too.

Why we are using Facebook

Facebook has become the channel of choice in the 20 or so practices that are actively participating, regardless of whether or not they use it in their private lives.

A 2014 Ofcom report noted that Facebook remains the default social networking site for almost all UK adults who are online – 96%. Between 30-33m people usee Facebook in the UK.

When we delved further into our data for Stoke-on-Trent practices we found that 86% of our Facebook users were female and 65% aged between 35-65 years. More patients are engaging with us on Facebook aged over 55 years than under 25 years.

So it makes sense to use this channel to share important health messages as well as information relating to our practices. The impact is impressive too. A video promoting the services available in one practice with a 10,000 list size, reached over 12,000 people, had 2,400 views and was shared by over 100 patients.

Facebook weight management group

The idea for a Facebook weight management group came from practice nurses. The purpose of the group was to enable nursing staff to provide valuable information and self help tips to patients, while creating online communities of likeminded patients to support each other.

Messages posted to patients range from exercise routines and diet advice to information about other services that are available.

The key differences between the Facebook pages and groups we run is that every patient in the group will receive posts, whereas not every person who likes a page will get the update. So, once we had agreement from patients to join the group, we had a captive audience ready to receive our information.

The groups can also be private which means that anything people posts in the group won't be visible by their Facebook friends.

What we put on Facebook

To build up our patient audiences, practices vary the content they highlight on Facebook and schedule posts to go up two or three times a week. A handful of staff share the management of the page in each practice.

By scheduling posts to go out in the evenings over the course of a week, patients get the content at times they are most likely to be on Facebook and may potentially share with others. Practices will post useful information from NHS Choices, relay weekend opening times, provide information about vaccination programmes and general news updates.

We're now seeing practices develop their own varied content and interact with patients in ways never before explored to this extent.

Other social media channels

Practices have also started using YouTube to post useful tips about asthma, provide demonstrations on how to use spacer devices and recognition of symptoms of stroke – for example.

YouTube is simple to use. Any smartphone can record simple health tips which can be uploaded onto the site. Practices share the YouTube content across over Facebook pages and groups as well to maximise the number of hits.

Managing risks

The beauty of using social media is that it provides direct access into the homes of our patients. It isn't without risks, which is why we've managed it carefully.

Practice staff have been trained and supported and we've developed a helpful social media toolkit which can be downloaded from our CCG supported digital health website www.digitalhealthsot.nhs.uk

Practices have developed protocols so that any unhelpful comments can be responded to and directed to the usual complaints processes. These have been few and far between, though, and practices have been more likely to receive positive comments and general enquiries.

There are a host of reasons why practices might not use social media but this ignores the reality of where many patients are now getting information from.

In Stoke-on-Trent, we would rather patients receive health information from our social media sites than from any number of forums made up of well meaning but misleading information. Our CCG's strategy is to change patients' attitudes towards health care. We want patients to learn more about their conditions so that they can understand what makes them ill and prevent that from happening.

Future developments

The CCG is also supporting a rollout of Skype in ten pilot practices to focus on consultations such as follow up for depression or asthma.

Our challenge is now to double the number of practices actively using social media in Stoke-on-Trent. Then we firmly believe we'll reach a tipping point where the remainder will want to participate in social media too and learn from the wealth of knowledge and experience amongst existing practices.

Read more about conduting online patient consultations

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