Social media is a set of online platforms (websites or applications) that enable people to communicate interactively. Using social media is a straightforward and relatively low cost method of raising your practice profile, supporting health promotion and self-management amongst your patients, and helping your practice meet key targets in areas such as QOF and immunisation. If social media is used effectively in primary care, it can lead to benefits for both patients and general practices:
- Patient engagement and empowerment through education (leading to more productive consultations)
- Improved communication and responsiveness to patient feedback
- Improved communication with key patient groups (e.g. new mothers)
- Indirect financial benefits associated with improved practice performance, and with patient retention and recruitment
- Increased practice visibility (online advertising of your practice and services)
- Improved health outcomes by using social media as a health promotion and/or self-management tool
A plan describing how to set up an interactive communication platform with patients through social media can be readily developed and added to general practices’ communication strategy. Here are the main steps of the plan we developed in our own practice, together with questions which should be raised:
- What does the practice wish to achieve by making use of the social media?
- Is the emphasis educating and informing patients, collecting feedback, advocating points of views, promoting the general practice, and/or improving social networking?
Figuring out the details
- How much time can be invested to keep accounts up-to-date?
- Is there a need for additional staff to work on social media?
- What types of messages should be diffused (professional, personal, etc.)?
Exploring and selecting appropriate channels
- Which websites and applications are needed to achieve the set goals?
- What is the best platform to reach the selected audience and to deliver the chosen messages?
- What are the rules and codes of each channel?
- In order to fully benefit from social media in our practice, we maintain up-to-date accounts with the following platforms.
1 Maintain an up-to-date practice website
Every practice should have a regularly updated, comprehensive website. It should contain all the basic information and resources patients need (e.g. location, services, opening hours). It should also provide information on what to do in case of emergencies, and resources for self-help. Links and guidelines should be provided for online services, such as registration or appointment booking systems. A news section with information on services such as flu jabs or local NHS issues is also useful and can easily be added to a practice website. Finally, the practice website is the optimal place to promote other social media platforms. For instance, our own website is linked to our Twitter page.
2 Create and update a profile on NHS Choices
NHS Choices allows patients to look for basic information about general practices: opening hours, staff, services, location, or contact information. It is important that an assigned staff member updates the profile regularly, as patients use NHS Choices to compare and choose between local practices. The platform also allows patients to rate practices and leave feedback. A designated member of staff should monitor this section and ensure that an authoritative and constructive answer is provided to all comments, whether positive or negative. Answers should show that a practice is receptive to patients’ concerns by:
- Inviting the patient to contact the practice for further discussion (confidentially)
- Including the position of the person answering (e.g. practice manager)
- Avoiding generic answers
- Never being negative or defensive
The following text is an example of our practice’s answer to a comment on NHS Choices:
3 Share timely information on Facebook
Facebook is a platform that encourages informal and friendly conversations between individuals. Our practice uses a Facebook page to interact with patients and promote our activities. On Facebook, users are prone to ask general questions or start conversations. This can lead to confidentiality issues, which should be monitored regularly. Facebook should be used to share information in a timely manner, for instance at the start of the flu vaccination season or if new services become available. It could also be used to promote registration of new patients.
4 Publish views and expertise on Twitter
Twitter can be used as a tool for the promotion of general practices. Communication is informal and straightforward due to restrictions on the number of characters that can be used in a ‘tweet’. We use the platform to share our views and expertise on health-related news. Patients will look for valuable information on Twitter, such as health tips on trending issues. Twitter is also a useful platform to respond to emergent health issues, such as disease outbreaks, as it allows practices to provide updates and information on newest developments.
5 Publicise your work to patients using an email newsletter
Sending regular newsletters by email to patients is an effective method of publicising the work of a practice to the local community. Tools such as MailChimp now have simplified tasks such as designing newsletters and maintaining distribution lists. Newsletters should contain information on varied health issues with the goal of educating patients. They should be attractive to its readers by using pictures, graphs or charts, and favouring concise paragraphs with limited use of specialist medical jargon. They should be sent regularly, optimally once every three months. Newsletters are particularly useful as they can be e-mailed to patients, making it a proactive form of marketing a practice. Here is an example of a page from our practice newsletter:
Emilie Karafillakis is a Research Assistant and Azeem Majeed is Professor of Primary Care at Imperial College London, and Raj Kumar is the Practice Manager at Dr Curran & Partners (www.claphamhealth.nhs.uk)
For further advice, please contact Emilie Karafillakis (firstname.lastname@example.org).