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Social Media – relationships – patients and the NHS

Published 9 February 2016

Patients and the NHS

Social media has transformed the interface between patients and the NHS staff across healthcare in the UK.

Throughout the economy, both service users and providers have harnessed social media growth via the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin. These websites act as multi-sided platforms, accommodating separate user groups who provide one another with network benefits. For example, Twitter allows service users to instantly reinforce and reprimand service provision through testimonials and criticisms. On the other hand, it equips service providers with 24/7 access to learning opportunities from user feedback. The boundaries between these groups has become more porous.

Social media’s impact on healthcare in the UK has manifested in this way. Patients are communicating their complaints via social media more frequently with the Medical Defence Union (MDU) seeing a rise in the number of its members that seek assistance with handling criticism on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. In 2014, MDU members requested such support in 4 times (400%) as many cases compared against 2010. This rate exceeds the 17% increase in the total number of written complaints lodged over the same period, as well as the expansion of the MDU’s membership base.

This is a trend that has led to concerns about patients bypassing official complaints procedures. Roy Lilley comments ‘either we make it easy for people to complain or they will easily make sure we take the blame’. The General Medical Council’s (GMC) chief executive, Niall Dickson, adds ‘the challenge for the GMC and other organisations is to make sure that anyone who has a concern or complaint can find their way to the right organisation to deal with it’. At Verita, we hope to see improvements to the existing NHS complaints infrastructure as a result of the ease with which patients can raise concerns on social media.

GPs already have an extensive social media code set out to them by organisations like the GMC and the RCGP but a similar code for patients does not exist. Regulation on patients’ use of social media has been ad-hoc. For example, after staff had been criticised on social media, a GP surgery in Braintree implemented its own zero-tolerance policy on patients discussing their experiences at the surgery, online. The surgery stressed that it will only deal with comments and complaints in accordance with its complaints procedure. Will we see improvements to official complaints procedures as a result of this? Greater accessibility, quicker response times?

Top-down information flow via social media is also increasing. Last year, analysis from the HSJ indicated that more than one in three acute trust chief executives were active on Twitter. Today, the majority of hospitals have dedicated Facebook pages and Twitter profiles.

Verita was recently commissioned to conduct an investigation after the father of a patient at an acute trust, complained to NHS England about the care and treatment of his son. The father used social media to raise awareness about his son’s care and treatment throughout the local community. In light of such cases, Verita views the presence of NHS chief executives on social media as crucial to the identification of community dissatisfaction about healthcare provision.

Verita is on social media. Find us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Google+.

If you would like to learn more about Patients and the NHS then please contact our Ed Marsden on 020 7494 5670 or [email protected].

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