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How to use social media to get health messages to patients and the public

Use digital technology to support self-management and communicate with hard-to-reach groups

Nurses are embracing the potential of digital platforms to promote public health find out how you can too

  • Nurses with social media expertise share their tips on what to do and what not to do
  • Read how nurses have identified populations that benefit from support via forums such as Facebook groups
  • Find out how to make the most of the social media your workplace already uses to communicate with patients

Social media and digital technology can offer a means of communicating effectively with patients as has been demonstrated during the COVID-19 pandemic.

With devices such as smartphones now an integral part of most peoples lives, it

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Nurses are embracing the potential of digital platforms to promote public health – find out how you can too

  • Nurses with social media expertise share their tips on what to do – and what not to do
  • Read how nurses have identified populations that benefit from support via forums such as Facebook groups
  • Find out how to make the most of the social media your workplace already uses to communicate with patients
Picture: iStock

Social media and digital technology can offer a means of communicating effectively with patients – as has been demonstrated during the COVID-19 pandemic.

With devices such as smartphones now an integral part of most people’s lives, it makes sense to capitalise on this, says Nicola Gill, director of the widening digital participation programme (WDPP) at NHS Digital.

Heathcare information for hard-to-reach groups

‘Going to where people go every day – in this case virtually, through social media – allows us to connect and engage with people in a way that’s familiar and convenient,’ Ms Gill explains.

‘It enables high-quality local health information to be shared quickly with specific communities at very low cost.’

The WDPP, run in partnership with charity the Good Things Foundation, recently published a report based on findings from its three-year project to help more people acquire the digital skills and the means to access health information and services online.

Nurse-led initiatives and services around the country test different ways of using digital technology to improve the health of vulnerable groups.

‘Seven million people in the UK don’t have internet access at home and nine million can’t use the internet without help’

Nicola Gill, NHS Digital

Social media was found to be useful in reaching those who may struggle to access traditional services, including black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) groups, people with disabilities, young people and those who’ve had bad experiences of healthcare in the past.

The digital divide – online support is not accessible to all

However, there are also concerns that increased use of digital services may accentuate health inequalities, with the authors saying COVID-19 has further exposed the digital divide – the links between digital exclusion and social and economic disadvantage.

‘Seven million people in the UK don’t have internet access at home and nine million can’t use the internet without help,’ says Ms Gill.

Nurses have been leading the way in efforts to tackle this digital divide over the past few years.

NHS Digital senior clinical lead Caron Swinscoe explains: ‘We’ve seen ground-breaking work from nurses around increasing accessibility and user engagement.

‘We’d like to see that expand further, especially by harnessing the power of social media.’


Facebook groups as nursing and peer support tools

Picture: iStock

Information for people with long-term conditions

In Stoke-on-Trent – one of the areas taking part in the WDPP – nurses moderated closed Facebook groups to provide additional support for people with long-term conditions.

Groups were set up for atrial fibrillation, multiple sclerosis and cardiac rehabilitation.

Each was moderated by a specialist nurse who spent around one hour a week monitoring and posting content.

An evaluation found the peer support and information provided helped divert queries that would normally go to nurses or GPs.

MS specialist nurses in the area saw a marked decrease in the number of queries to their helpline, while about 25% of queries resolved through the atrial fibrillation group would normally have led to a GP visit.

Addressing decline in breast screening attendance

Also in Stoke-on-Trent, the North Midlands Breast Screening Service used Facebook to reverse a ten-year decline in the number of women attending screening for the first time.

This included posting videos to show what screening involved and enabling people to ask questions and book appointments via Facebook messenger.

Staff made a special effort to target specific groups, including women from BAME backgrounds, transgender people and those with learning disabilities.

The project achieved an average increase of 12.9% in first-time attendance at seven sites across Stoke-on-Trent between screening cycles in 2014 and 2018.

A valuable forum for general practice nurses

Practice nurse and telehealth facilitator Ann Hughes

Practice nurse Ann Hughes, a telehealth facilitator working in Staffordshire ‘s clinical commissioning groups, is at the forefront of efforts to increase effective use of social media and digital technology by GP practices across the county, including wider use of closed Facebook groups.

Ms Hughes, who has a national role as a digital nurse facilitator mentoring practice nurses across the country, stresses the importance of setting guidelines for users that make it clear how much input from clinicians they can expect.

Currently 116 out of 150 GP practices in Staffordshire have a public Facebook page, with the potential to reach around 800,000 of the county’s 1.2 million population.

‘We encourage practice teams to use a range of different posts to keep people’s interest and increase footfall,’ says Ms Hughes.

‘Middle-aged to older people seem more confident with Facebook, the younger generation tend to favour Instagram. The beauty of having a professional presence across various sites is you’re able to reach the majority of patients in your care’

Ann Hughes, practice nurse

Content does not have to be overly sophisticated but should be tailored for maximum impact, she explains.

‘We found personalising practice pages increases reach. This could be as simple as staff recording short films on their smartphones to introduce patients to the team.’

Digital animation can be used as a means of presenting information on issues such as diabetes self-management in an accessible way Picture: iStock

Together with other local nurses she helped create a series of COVID-19 related animations that have been shared on practices’ Facebook pages and reached 47,625 people in two months.

‘They last no longer than a minute and contain succinct health messages that are easy to watch,’ she adds.

The animations have included information for carers, who have been left without their usual sources of support during the pandemic, and advice on managing type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure at home.

How to run a nurse-moderated closed Facebook group for patients

  • Before you start, check your organisation’s social media policy
  • Set clear rules for the group, explain its purpose and how it will work. Make clear it is not a forum for patients to give each other medical advice
  • Identify a specialist nurse to moderate the group and ensure they have protected time to do this
  • Get started by posting information such as digitised leaflets, videos or web links. Creating online posters of frequently asked questions can save time answering individual queries on one topic
  • Listen and respond to patient feedback Building a community takes time; ask for ideas to help develop the group
  • Use routine check-ups and appointments to advertise the group Show patients the group in action on a tablet or smartphone and explain the benefits of taking part
  • Be firm if people are giving out health information when they shouldn’t be, but do allow conversations to run. Encourage people to offer emotional support and practical lifestyle tips
  • Let your personality shine through People respond better when they feel someone is genuinely listening and not simply going through the motions by providing formulaic responses

Adapted from Good Things Foundation guidance

Promoting participation among people in Gypsy and Traveller groups

Cambridgeshire County Council’s Traveller health team already had a Facebook page when the pandemic began, but realised it could be developed for greater effect.

At the start of the first national lockdown the team got in touch with existing and previous clients in Gypsy and Traveller communities and asked them to join the group.

Lead nurse for Traveller health Shaynie Larwood-Smith says: ‘We literally rang them up and said “join our Facebook page”.

This generated more than 1,100 new users and the team has since used the site to share public health messages, dispel myths and rumours and provide educational resources, such as videos from the authority’s public health team.

‘We redirect those messages so they come from us,’ says Ms Larwood-Smith. ‘I don’t think our clients would look at county council messages but they might look at something we post.’

People from Gypsy and Traveller backgrounds can face discrimination so it was particularly important content was tightly controlled.

The team deploys the strictest settings available so nothing can be posted on the page without first being vetted.

‘All comments are screened,’ says Ms Larwood-Smith.

Users can also use the private messaging function to contact the team about any concerns or practical issues such as problems getting food or medication.

Tips on how to reach more patients on social media

Create a brand The secret to any successful social media campaign is to develop an easily recognisable brand, according to digital senior charge nurse Joan Pons Laplana. Logos and hashtags help make your campaign more memorable and create a buzz about the work you are doing, he says.

Use a variety of platforms Different age groups tend to favour different forms of social media, explains practice nurse Ann Hughes. ‘Middle-aged to older people seem more confident with Facebook whereas the younger generation tend to favour Instagram. The beauty of having a professional presence across the various sites is you’re able to reach the majority of patients in your care.’

Post pictures, videos and animations People are more likely to respond to colourful content – especially short video clips – and share it with others. ‘Reams of text are not going to draw anyone in. If your page is attractive you’ll get much more of a reach,’ says Ms Hughes. ‘Appealing content is often shared with family and friends so that increases the reach again.’

Use data to target your approach Data analytics are crucial in helping reach your target audience, says advanced nurse practitioner Helen O’Connell. ‘It makes it easier to work out who your user is. If you want your user to be someone else, you need to change what you’re doing.’

Ensure content is inclusive ‘It is important content like animations feature multicultural characters and various ages and genders to increase impact,’ adds Ms Hughes. ‘Social media platforms such as Facebook easily translate into different languages for people who don’t have English as a first language.’

Social prescribing and well-being support in the pandemic

In West Yorkshire, Howarth Medical Practice advanced nurse practitioner Helen O’Connell was inspired to launch a social prescribing website called Treacle during the pandemic, after realising families attending a food bank had no idea where to find the additional support they needed.

Users of the Treacle website can select the information by selecting colour-coded category headings

Ms O’Connell wanted to help people find sources of support for issues such as money worries and emotional well-being.

After launching the site in July 2020, with support from her practice, she quickly realised social media, especially Facebook and Instagram, were vital when it came to promoting it to as many potential users as possible.

‘At first I wanted it on the side of buses and on posters in the town centre, but nobody is looking at the side of buses, everyone is looking at their phones,’ she says.

She recommends that nurses who intend to establish networks or groups on social media seek help from people who use it regularly and understand how it works.

General practice nurse Helen O’Connell set up a website after spotting unmet need among people using food banks

‘Get advice from people who have successful media platforms with lots of followers – it doesn’t have to be another nurse or someone in medicine, just someone good at what you want to be good at,’ she says.

‘There are loads of people willing to help.’

She also advises making the most of easily accessible data analytics provided by Facebook, Twitter, Google and others.

‘I have become addicted to Google analytics,’ says Ms O’Connell. ‘I go on there to see who’s looking at the website, where they are in the country, how old they are, what links they click on and the device they’re using. I get a lot of information.’

She assumed most people would access Treacle via a computer but was surprised to find 85% were using a smartphone.

‘I’m changing the site so it looks better on a phone,’ she says. ‘I was also astonished to find most people who access it are under 35, so I’m thinking about tweaking it for a younger audience.’


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