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Practice promotion

22 November 2016

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A recent Ofcom report showed that in the UK seven out of 10 adults now have a social media profile and the

number is still growing. With this in mind GP practices need to consider using Facebook to reflect the changing environment and their patient population preferences.

In Stoke-on-Trent and North Staffordshire, there are now more than 40 GP practices using social media to engage with patients via Facebook. The topics discussed range from simple health messages to the publication of did not attend (DNA) rates. Alongside this, several patient participation groups (PPGs) have set up closed Facebook communities, which are working well and attracting new members of different ages. And there are three other closed Facebook groups that have been created by various clinical specialties and are managed by nurses at Royal Stoke University Hospital; these cover cardiac rehabilitation, atrial

“People want to see ‘their’ GP or nurse talking directly to them, relaying key health messages”

fibrillation (AF) and stroke, and multiple sclerosis (MS). This connected infrastructure allows us to cascade valuable and timely health information to a wide population cheaply and effectively. One simple self-care video on AF and stroke, produced by a nurse and medical consultant, was viewed over 15,000 times in one weekend after being shared on our practice sites.

Reach versus engagement

A common mistake made by some in the NHS, though, when using social media, is to focus only on the numbers reached. It’s not as easy as that. While reach is an important measure of how widely you have pushed out your social media content, it can be compared to a blanket leaflet drop – you’ve posted 20,000 leaflets but how many have been read or acted upon? So engagement must also be considered as a measure of your impact. However, engagement requires an investment of time and effort – which this article addresses.

A good analogy to adopt when using social media is to think of how you operate at a party. If you talk about yourself all the time or don’t pause for breath you’ll soon become a bore and switch people off. This is also the case, if you start arguing with people in public you’ll not only damage your reputation but make others feel uncomfortable – or worse, they will side with the person you are arguing with. So engagement is about being interactive with content and in ways that suits all parties.

The following is ten tips on how to use social media, effectively and safely.

1. Don’t delay in setting up your social media profile

If there’s a void, a disaffected patient could set up their own. This is especially true with Facebook. It’s possible for a patient to create an unofficial page for your practice that will look like an official page. And you will have no control over its content. If that person decides to launch an assault on your practice there is little you can do. But if you create your own Facebook account you can respond to the person and invite them to make their complaint offline. And if you have established an official practice Facebook site, people should see the unofficial site(s) as unauthorised.

2. Avoid being boring and non-engaging

Share information that is specific to the practice. If you repeat generic information that can be found elsewhere you negate the need for people to join your network. The self-care video on stroke and AF described earlier was effective because it looked like the staff had produced it themselves. A slick corporate video on the same subject will not have as much effect.

3. Be natural

If you are creating a YouTube or Facebook video, make it look casual and natural, as though the GP or nurse is talking directly to a patient via the screen. The video doesn’t need to be slick to be effective and it shouldn’t appear ‘acted’ in any way as people are less likely to share it. People want to see ‘their’ GP or nurse talking directly to them, relaying key health messages.

4. Start closed Facebook groups for disease areas to encourage peer to peer support

One patient who uses the Royal Stoke University Hospital MS closed Facebook group said the group had been a huge support for her. She had met other patients and trusted the information the nurses shared – more than links she received from other patients. Also, she appreciated that the group was moderated by the nurses so that members of the group would not be able to sell products – this had been happening in the patient-generated Facebook group she was previously a member of. Ask patients what they think of your Facebook site and groups.

5. Ensure that your staff have adequate training

This is important in terms of site moderation and content generation. Content will be more interesting if a number of people are creating it and similarly, the site will continue to be managed if a key moderator is away. Moderation doesn’t have to be onerous. Staff in our local practices who manage the Facebook pages tend to go on to their site three times a week for 10 minutes. The key is to use the scheduling tool to plan your content and make sure it goes out in the evenings when people are online. And surely 30 minutes of staff time is affordable in terms of a general practice business if patients are enabled to self-care and be less likely to book nurse or GP appointments inappropriately.

6. Group with other practices so there’s more joint sharing of materials

A network of people using social media is a great thing to have. It helps prevent the sites becoming boring and the practice looks well connected if it is sharing videos from consultants in a local hospital, for instance. The shared learning is a great thing as it will spark new ideas for using social media.

7. Take negative comments offline

It is important to not get involved in heated exchanges online. It will not defuse the situation and in most respects will make the matter worse. Respond to negative posted comments in positive and productive ways so that the person posting such comments is happy with the practice response and removes them. The best method is to contact the patient privately and ask them to come to the practice and make the complaint through the proper channels. Don’t delete or ignore a complaint. Instead, post a simple public message stating that you will look into it and get in touch – this will show other users that you have taken it seriously.

This is why it is better for the practice to own and manage its Facebook page, instead of allowing patients to set one up.

8. Use insight data

Find out how successful your Facebook or other social media provision is by using the superb insight data that social media channels produce. Evaluation of social media is so simple to do and can provide you with a wealth of information about your users. Generally the age group of people accessing a GP practice page will be female between 35 and 55 years old. However, this differs according to the nature of the page. For example, the AF and stroke public Facebook page created by the Royal Stoke University Hospital has 35% of users aged 75+ years old and 25% aged between 55 and 75 years. This is down to the type of information being shared, which is more relevant to people of that age group but also contradicts the myth that social media is mainly used by youngsters.

9. Use it to develop innovative approaches to patient participation and involvement

A great area for this is a PPG. In many practices, PPGs mainly consist of retired people or those who can dedicate time to face-to-face meetings. But how do you engage with people that work long hours or have demanding family commitments? Social media can be the answer. Belgrave Medical Centre in Stoke-on-Trent has a Facebook PPG that operates alongside the face-to- face PPG.2

The members receive the same information and interact in much the same way. The key difference is the demographics – the Facebook PPG is much younger and made up of more young mums.

10. Keep it simple

There are some basic things you can do to make managing your social media account as easy as possible. This includes scheduling your posts, ensuring that your account is managed by a number of staff as part of their day-to-day work and putting some effort into pre-planning the subjects. Pre-planned topics can be very useful as you can do this months in advance. 

Dr Ruth Chambers is a partner in a GP practice in Stoke-on-Trent and Marc Schmid works with all 80+ practices in Stoke-on-Trent & North Staffordshire CCGs


1. Ofcom. Adults’ Media Use and Attitudes Report. London: Ofcom; 2014. Available at: http://stake media- literacy/adults- 2014/2014_ Adults_report.

2. Chambers R, Schmid M, Birch-Jones J. Digital healthcare: the essential guide. Otmoor Publishing, 2016. https://itun. es/gb/k_Xveb.l