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How we set up a ‘virtual’ patient group

Managing partner Vanessa Young describes how her practice set up an internet-based patient participation group

We already try very hard as a practice to get feedback from patients in a number of ways. For instance, we have an active patient participation group, a facebook page where we ask for feedback and we do regular paper surveys of patient opinon as well.

But while I was doing some work with the Department of Health on their access and responsiveness programme, I was approached by a company and asked if our practice would be interested in piloting a 'virtual' patient group.

Our practice felt that this was another way to engage with a different group of patients, so we agreed immediately to be a pilot for this project. This group works by emailing surveys to patients, so that they can record and send back their opinions in their own time. It also reaches patients that would not normally have the time to attend face-to-face sessions.

What we did

The hardest part of the work in setting up this virtual group was collecting all the email addresses. I put a flyer in reception and added a link to our TV screen in the reception area to try and get as many as possible. We currently have about 100 email addresses.

The company - Patient and Public Involvement Solutions - helped me set up my first questionnaire using Survey Monkey but the whole process was very easy to do. I kept all the forms filled out by patients as a check in case any bounced back, which they did the first time I did it. You can then go back and edit the email addresses to ensure the list is kept up-to-date.

The first survey I sent out was on access and the ease of patients being able to get appointments, with the option of a yes or no answer and a place for any other comments. It is important to make sure the questionnaire is not too long otherwise people will not want to do it if it is going to be too timely for them.

Accessing the results is very easy, and the programme generates graphs that can be downloaded and taken to practice meetings etc. It also gives you a percentage of the patients against or for a particular idea, so you can quickly assess the results.

The results

So far, this has been an excellent tool to engage with a wider group of patients rather than just having a patient participation group. For my practice I feel this is something extra to have rather than instead of the patient groups. It gives excellent feedback on the services we provide and patients seem to be more honest with electronic feedback compared with face-to-face feedback in a room of people.

We send out surveys on a quarterly basis. The one I am conducting at the moment is to get feedback on our phone system. We have a new system and want to know if it is better or not. So far it has shown me that the patients do not like it, which has been good. Some surveys are good to get feedback before you make any changes and some are good to get feedback on a change that has been made.

Overall I think it is an excellent tool and currently we are currently using it for free, but if more patients added to the list we may have to start paying for it.

Vanessa Young is the managing partner at a GP practice in Southampton and the practice manager representative for the NHS Alliance in south central England,

Vanessa Young