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Heather Henry: Use social media to work in partnership with patients

Nurses are cautious users of social media, aware of the risk of crossing boundaries or breaching patient confidentiality. Genuine engagement is scary, but it could enable people to find their own health solutions, says the chair of the New NHS Alliance.
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Nurses are cautious users of social media, aware of the risk of crossing boundaries or breaching patient confidentiality. Genuine engagement is scary, but it could enable people to find their own health solutions, says the chair of the New NHS Alliance

The digital revolution in nursing has so far focused on telehealth (health care at a distance), informatics (use of data), digital inclusion (helping people connect online) and digital professional communication, using social media.

I want to take the debate further by discussing how nurses might improve health and well-being by using social media in partnership with patients, carers and population groups.

There are challenges and risks in using social media, which are well documented in guidance from the Nursing and Midwifery Council, the RCN and leaders in the

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Nurses are cautious users of social media, aware of the risk of crossing boundaries or breaching patient confidentiality. Genuine engagement is scary, but it could enable people to find their own health solutions, says the chair of the New NHS Alliance

social
Nurses should consider using social media to help people
improve their well-being. Picture: iStock

The digital revolution in nursing has so far focused on telehealth (health care at a distance), informatics (use of data), digital inclusion (helping people connect online) and digital professional communication, using social media.

I want to take the debate further by discussing how nurses might improve health and well-being by using social media in partnership with patients, carers and population groups.

There are challenges and risks in using social media, which are well documented in guidance from the Nursing and Midwifery Council, the RCN and leaders in the use of social media in nursing, such as WeCommunities. Confidentiality, boundaries, appropriate use by vulnerable groups, and responsible and sensitive communication are recurrent themes. The unintended consequence of this may be to deter some from using social media to nurse.

Challenge

Social media use by nurses may be categorised as follows:

  • Professional to professional, such as Twitter chat use for continuing professional development.
  • Professional to public. This can be further broken down into broadcasting information, such as messages that flu immunisations can save lives, and interactive, such as sexual health nurses answering texts from young people.
  • Public self-help, enabled or observed by nurses, such as nurses moderating open or closed Facebook groups.

The first two are largely about nurses being in control of the use of social media (an exception is interactive use). The challenge is to see how we can flex our approach and set the conditions whereby patients and populations can co-produce solutions or lead with our support.

Motivational speaker and stroke activist Kate Allatt (@KateAllatt) has fought against locked-in syndrome and is now an inspiration to others. At a practice nurse conference, I heard her describe how she had reached out to another woman with the syndrome via Facebook. Kate gave the woman hope to get the rehabilitation she needed, when professionals thought further improvement impossible. 

‘Nurses can evolve as professionals to embrace social media not just as a communication and broadcasting tool but also to observe, engage and enable our patients and communities to find their own solutions’

Kate asked the conference why practice nurses don't enable self-help by setting up Facebook groups for patients with long-term conditions. Her words struck home. If we constantly see health services as the solution, then dependency will increase. We say we consider our patients as partners, but does the reality match the rhetoric? Partnership means sharing power and control, and that is scary. And sometimes we focus so much on safety that we drive people-led solutions away.

I use a large number of social media platforms in my nursing. Diving into Mumsnet I found useful advice on how to support toddlers with asthma. As a result, I adapted the story of the Three Little Pigs using a puppet ‘big bad wolf’ who has asthma and can’t blow the piggies’ house down.

I devised a Twitter presence called @BreathChamps and am now teaching the story to both professional and lay volunteers so they can share the correct inhaler technique with children who are reluctant to use their spacer.

Community

I use my professional Facebook presence to join popular Facebook groups run by community leaders. I recently posted a picture of an inhaler encased in a dinosaur made of modelling clay to see if such decoration might encourage children to take their inhalers. Within hours I had received 24 replies from parents.

On another occasion, I spotted a series of posts from mothers complaining that a brand of Salbutamol wasn't working. I checked with their community pharmacist, who said it might be a faulty batch, then signposted the mothers to the Yellow Card scheme for reporting potentially defective medicines.

Nurses can evolve as professionals to embrace social media not just as a communication and broadcasting tool but also to observe, engage and enable our patients and communities to find their own solutions.


heatherHeather Henry is an independent public health nurse, a Queen’s Nurse, and chair of the New NHS Alliance. Access the New NHS Alliance’s manifesto for health creation here

Twitter @HeatherHenry4

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