Social media are often associated with the younger generations, with people with “time on their hands” and with the more creative professions. However, a recent publication by NHS employers suggests that the benefits of social media use extend right throughout healthcare organisations, and NHS Chief Executives are encouraged to get active online. That social media are now considered an arena for serious discussion of medical and leadership topics may still feel surprising to some. Indeed, those working at an executive level have generally tended to be less familiar with new media than more junior colleagues, and many have heard “I’m too old for Facebook” or “Twitter is for kids” as a reason not to become involved in social media.

The NHS Employers document outlines why social media are important to NHS Chief Executives, describing how the twin drivers of a changing healthcare and leadership landscape and ever-increasing use of digital media by patients, the public and those influential in healthcare have created an environment in which those at the highest level of NHS management need to be active online if they are to continue to lead and manage their organisations effectively.

The guidance

The guidance document explains why social media literacy is increasingly important, and includes the following interesting statistics:

85 per cent of people in the UK have used the internet

Approximately half of all people in the UK have a smartphone (a phone able to connect to the internet)

Over 50 per cent of people in the UK use social media sites

Only 34.2 per cent of people regularly read a newspaper

The key benefits of social media engagement for NHS Chief Executives are listed:

  • Ability to work outside of geographical and hierarchical boundaries
  • Access to effective channels for communicating organisational vision, maintaining contact with stakeholders and for creating networks with peers
  • Encouragement of a collaborative leadership style

The document also provides “top tips” from a range of current and past NHS Chief Executives who have effectively used social media.

What does this mean?

NHS leaders who choose to follow the advice of NHS Employers and start connecting online will see how all healthcare stakeholders are now connected via social media. Patients communicate digitally with others who have similar experiences, and online communities can be powerful sources of support and information, as mentioned in the guidance document. Connecting with e-patients can help NHS Chief Executives to quickly learn more about the users of their services, and the issues that matter to them.

We are already seeing doctors and patients connecting online, and there is scope through telehealth and telepharmacy for digital technologies to change the way healthcare professionals care for their communities.  At a higher level, previous Healthcare Engagement Strategy Awards winner, NHS Local, shows how the internet can be used to help deliver care more efficiently.

Through Creation Pinpoint, the world’s only dedicated tool for analysing healthcare professionals’ social media conversations, it has been shown that doctors are:

  • engaging with their peers
  • sharing news
  • discussing cases
  • building professional networks using Twitter and other platforms

Engaging with this community online would be a time-efficient way of learning about doctors’ opinions and needs. A Twitter chat held in real time could reach out to hundreds of doctors in geographically separate hospitals and clinics – carrying out the same exercise on paper or in person would be logistically difficult.

Mark Newbold, the Chief Executive of Heart of England NHS Foundation Trust writes a blog at www.marknewbold.com and has a Twitter account with almost 4,000 followers. He believes that social media can help to create a more open and flexible style of hospital management, and comments in the guidance document that by facilitating openness and access, and by bringing Chief Executives into the heart of current debates, use of social media will help create better leaders.

Conclusion

The NHS is a huge organisation, and is not usually viewed as forward-looking or innovative. However, its top level management is now being encouraged and supported to embrace social media. The guidance produced by NHS Employers is clear and practical and should help Chief Executives and their colleagues to get active online.

Other healthcare organisations can learn from this example and ensure they have explained the benefits of social media use to colleagues at all levels, and that practical guides are available to provide support at all stages of the journey towards social media proficiency. As more and more stakeholders join in the healthcare conversation on social media, it is becoming increasingly important for individuals and organisations with an interest in the area to listen to and engage with what is being shared.