The first time I was referred to hospital by a GP, the information I had available to me on the suspected diagnosis and the options available to me was practically non-existent. Due to the absence of any better information, I remember looking up the terms that the GP had used in a dictionary. This was only 20 years ago but it is easy to forget how far the information revolution has driven us in empowering patients and ultimately improving the quality of healthcare. When I was referred in the late 1990’s, I didn’t have a choice of hospital to go to, waiting times were excessive and outcomes were nowhere near as good as they are now. The monumental improvements that have been made are obviously partially due to the additional cash that was injected into the NHS following the publication of the NHS Plan. However, this is also partially due to the information revolution which has led to the empowerment of patients and has provided information on how to stay healthy as well as providing a choice to patients when it comes to their healthcare. It is too easy to forget how much the NHS has improved over the last 20 years and we should congratulate all the staff in the NHS for making this happen. However, the internet has also played a role in facilitating some of these improvements. We are lucky to have http://www.nhs.uk to provide peer reviewed, validated information and data on healthcare services. We also have sites such as www.bestcarecompare.com (The “Trip Advisor” for healthcare) to provide information to support choices about where to receive treatment. However, in this article I want to focus on the role of social media and, in particular, the role of Twitter in the NHS.
@NHSCHoices has 218,000 followers and regularly tweets on health issues and ways to improve your health as well as sign posting people to more detailed information on http://www.nhs.uk. Most hospitals/NHS Trusts have twitter accounts. Bart’s Health, for example, has nearly 10,000 followers and regularly tweets about some of the great things they are doing. Most CCGs also have Twitter accounts and tweet about local services and service redesign amongst other things. There is therefore no shortage of validated and official information on Twitter. However, there are 2 main points I want to make in relation to Twitter.
Firstly, Twitter provides a platform for users to provide information and comment which is incorrect, misleading and potentially dangerous. Given that Twitter has more than 330 million users each month it is difficult to police all these comments. Twitter is great in the speed and extent to which it can disseminate information. However, when this information is misleading or incorrect this can be very negative. For example, @Homeopathyinfo has nearly 10,000 followers. In May 2017, it was reported on social media that North Devon Healthcare NHS Trust were closing the maternity and emergency departments at North Devon District Hospital. According to reports, this information was widely shared on social media and was incorrect. In this instance, the Trust identified the issue and responded accordingly. However, given the 330 million Twitter users, it is difficult to police comments made about you and your organisation.
The second point I wanted to make is that Twitter is used by the NHS as a communication tool. For me, communication is about talking and listening. Unfortunately, whilst Twitter provides the NHS with the means to talk about health and healthcare, it is not as easy to listen to what patients and the public are saying about the services. This is partially because not all comments use the appropriate hash tags and @mentions but also because the volume of comments about the NHS is much greater than the number of comments being made by the NHS. The NHS desperately needs to listen to what patients are saying and Twitter provides a great opportunity to do this.