Posted by: ayrshirehealth | September 14, 2012

Social media and NHS Scotland by @ptupdate

 Social media as agent for (open) change

Running right through the recent NHS Highland annual event in Inverness was a strong seam of discussion relating to social media, and its potential for blasting open the communication barriers that still stand between Scotland’s health service and the people who use it.

GP Adrian Baker conceded that family doctors can be ‘scary people’, so no wonder patients are reluctant to question them face-to-face;  Chief Executive Elaine Mead agreed that social media is opening exciting new avenues for involving people, and on their own terms,  in the development of services; while Chairman Garry Coutts shared his view that although the NHS has a problem loosening its patriarchal grip, it must do so in order to harness the good ideas for service improvement that the public has to share.

 The theme of the day was quality, and it is becoming increasingly clear that a critical ingredient in the improvement mix is the facilitation of genuine two-way chat between service provider and service user. Not process-driven interactions tightly controlled by ‘nanny’ NHS, but meaningful mutual conversations that are allowed to flow freely, despite the risks.

Harnessing Online Social Networking

The NHS has a great deal to learn from the experience of people who use it, and ought to welcome their input warmly.  But traditionally, unsolicited communication from outwith is perceived as a threat. Patients, goes the assumption, only want to complain, so they have to be tightly corralled. Service providers point out that there are patient partnership forums, focus groups and satisfaction surveys – what more could you possibly want? But I have never been asked what I think of the services that I use. To keep a finger on the pulse of any organisation and monitor its real real-time performance, surely access has to be as open as possible.

Scotland’s new Patient Rights Act enshrines in law that NHS staff must help people to give feedback, make suggestions or complain.

No doubt there are whole new empires being created to manage this internally, but it is also important that there are independent channels that people can use if they choose to.

A quick trawl of the ‘net for information on NHS Scotland social media policies confirms my suspicions about old-style cultures being applied to new comms channels. One Scottish Government paper, entitled Harnessing Online Social Networking [OSN] within NHSScotland: Benefits and Risks*, says it all:

Usage of OSN to engage with the public via transactions, knowledge/information services and patient data access brings eHealth closer to achieving ‘patient portals’. Other first wave – and low risk purposes – to which OSN functionality can be used are; business continuity communications, news and announcements, understanding and monitoring public opinion, public education/health campaigns, professional and patient network support..”

 Listening to what service users have to say

There is nothing amid all that jargon about using social media to actually listen to what service users have to say. That requires culture change, and while some Boards are catching on, others are still making like police horses in a riot and trudging on with their heads down, waiting for the stramash to stop. It won’t.

Social media is here to stay, and a growing number of users seem determined to help NHS Scotland improve, whether it wants it or not. The doughty might be prepared to fight their way through Board websites to hunt down a way of registering their views (or even pass on compliments) directly, but others opt to use independent routes such as the website Patient Opinion which can connect them directly with the relevant NHS managers, and tracks what happens.

A review of the postings makes interesting reading. While some Boards have risen to the PO challenge admirably – HT (Hat Tip in Twitterspeak) to NHS Highland, Scottish Ambulance Service, Golden Jubilee Hospital – others really ought to go back to charm school.

Social media poses challenges in all directions. Recently, NHS Highland was criticised in the media for allowing a member of its staff to tweet about a patient who was “demanding” and “unrealistic” and observed that “the human body is not designed to last forever”.

No confidentiality was breached and no-one was harmed, yet commentators who in the past would have been up in arms if NHS bosses had been accused of gagging staff, were now slamming the same bosses for allowing workers to say what they honestly think…

Transparency is a two-way street, and openness does not always make for a comfortable journey.

Thankfully, NHSHighland’s revealing #nhshwhoweare Twitter feed survives.

I look forward to others following its fine example.


@ptupdate (Pennie Taylor) is an experienced journalist and health communications specialist. Pennie is a renowned champion of public and staff involvement in Scotland’s health and care services, former Health Correspondent for BBC Scotland and was the founding Health Editor of the Sunday Herald newspaper.

Next weeks blog comes from @geoffhuggins Head of Division in the Scottish Government: Reshaping Care and Mental Health Division


  1. […] Social media and NHS Scotland by Pennie Taylor on the Ayrshire Health blog. Share this:TwitterFacebookLinkedInPinterestMoreEmailRedditPrintDiggStumbleUponTumblrLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. This entry was posted in communicating, health services, social media, working practices and tagged National Health Service, NHS Scotland by weeklyblogclub. Bookmark the permalink. […]

  2. […] that social media presents for dialogue and the challenges of such two-way communication in Social media and NHS Scotland  Although she was looking at this in the context of Scotland, it is worth reading by all in the […]

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