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Five tips for engaging with patients through social media

Using social media in general practice can be rewarding in a number of ways: it helps you relay valuable preventative health advice directly into the homes of individual patients via their social media accounts. It also creates opportunities for linking up with patient groups, for example with closed Facebook groups for patient participation groups (PPGs) or condition-specific patient groups such as the local Diabetes UK group.

In Stoke-on-Trent, 26 practices of the 52 practices are actively using social media, for example creating Facebook pages and groups. One particular practice has over 45 Facebook PPG members who operate alongside a PPG of 10 face-to-face members. Members of the Facebook PPG group do not want to attend face-to-face meetings and the group who meet up in the practice do not use Facebook. By using this flexible approach, the practice has a diverse PPG membership offering support and advice on practice business.

Social media use continues to grow. In Stoke-on-Trent, using Facebook to engage with GP practices is most popular amongst 35-55 year olds and more patients over 55 years old use Facebook this way than those under 20. Social media should be treated as an invaluable channel for GP practices.

However, if not considered as part of a wider engagement strategy, the use of social media can be time consuming and potentially damaging to your reputation. If staff aren’t upskilled appropriately and the use of social media is not taken seriously, patients can look upon social media profiles as amateurish.

Here are five tips to get the most out of using social media in your practice:

1. Train staff appropriately

Be clear as to which staff will manage your accounts and ensure that they are trained. Once trained, staff will be able to use the scheduling tool in Facebook which enables posts to go out at peak times rather than during the working day. The role of managing the accounts should be spread across at least two members of staff to ensure that content is regularly updated. Writing the posts and updating the pages should take up no more than 10 minutes, three times a week.

2. Don’t get into a row online with any patient commentator.

Using Stoke-on-Trent’s example, we have engaged with thousands of patients. A handful of these thousands of posts have been difficult (for example patients saying they are struggling to get an appointment or get through on the phone) but this is far outweighed by the very many positive posts from patients. All responses to negative posts should be simple and constructive. If a patient has made a specific complaint they need to be referred to the practice’s normal complaints procedures.

3. Be clear about what your accounts are used for

Your practice’s Facebook page is for practice information and updates and not the booking of appointments. You will receive some messages to this effect from time to time but individual patients should simply be pointed in the right direction.

4. Be creative

Using social media provides a fantastic opportunity to get important health messages out to the public in creative ways. Some practices in Stoke-on-Trent are producing GP self-care tutorial videos on conditions such as asthma and stroke – the feedback from patients after watching their GP ‘talking to them directly’ is great. Other practices are publishing DNA information to spark discussions about the cost of people missing their practice appointments.

5. Use Facebook groups

Whether these are private or public, Facebook groups are an invaluable method of getting information out to patients with common interests (e.g. weight management) as well as developing peer-to-peer support.

Dr Ruth Chambers is a GP in Stoke-on-Trent and Clinical Telehealth Lead at NHS Stoke-on-Trent CCG.

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