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For Primary Care| View from the ground

Embracing Social Media in General Practice

View From the Ground, by Dr Abbie Brooks

I have been a GP partner for 2 years—it is a role I really enjoy, but I also find it extremely challenging at times. COVID-19 has changed how patients access primary care but it has also altered so many of our in-house systems and protocols. I have an interest in external medical communications and as soon as I became a partner, I asked for the practice Facebook and Twitter log-in details so I could start increasing our following and providing updates to our patient population. Over the last 6 months, this has been a facet of my role that has taken up a lot more of my time than usual.

We have had active social media accounts for a couple of years but this year, they have been significantly more active. At the very beginning of the pandemic, as a partnership, we decided to communicate regularly (daily, sometimes more) with our patient population via our social media pages about COVID-19 and other topics. I am proud that patients have been in touch to say they felt well informed and reassured by our consistent posting.

Our practice has a list size of nearly 60,000 patients with a broad range of ages and social diversity, so using a variety of communication tools is really important for us. We have good traffic through our website, but it can take time to update as it’s not done inhouse. Postal communication can be expensive and, certainly during the pandemic, slow. We use text (SMS) communication a lot; it is a fairly cheap and easy way of informing our patients about changes or new services, but there is usually a word limit and not everyone has a mobile phone number on their record.

Social media has the advantage of allowing contemporaneous updates. For example, we were able to inform our patients as soon as we moved to a remote triage service. We reminded them how to request repeat prescriptions and were able to highlight the advantages of electronic prescribing and the NHS app. The Government guidance relating to COVID-19 was sometimes confusing (shielding anyone?!) or very detailed and I was able to ‘interpret’ the guidance, and give the important points in small digestible posts to reduce the likelihood of our patients feeling overwhelmed by the information.

We recognised early on that we needed to use coherent and simple language, but also a consistent look to the posts as this would allow our patients to understand it was a post relating to COVID-19. Social media channels provide the option to ‘tag’ other groups or organisations, such as the local CCG, council, and hospital, to share important messages. Hashtags allow social media users to easily identify posts about a specific topic—we used #covid19 and #teamPMG throughout. Many of our patients shared posts with friends and family, particularly on Facebook, which was great to see as it meant that more people were accessing accurate, up-to-date information.

Many practices don’t have social media accounts and there are many reasons for this; lack of expertise, inability to commit the time, or worry that there would be no interest from the patient population. Going forward, I want to develop our external communications with a dedicated ‘comms team’. As a GP, I have clinical knowledge so can ensure the information we share is appropriate, but I have a lot of other responsibilities within the practice so need to pass the baton on and train up more, probably non-clinical, members of the team to feel confident in posting on our pages. I have no marketing or communications training but would love to develop this interest more formally.

Dr Abbie Brooks

GP, Park View Surgery