The current global health pandemic, COVID-19, has spread exponentially since it was first declared in Wuhan in 2019. Affecting the world’s population, combating the spread of misinformation has been seen to be of great importance as more and more sources add to the noise online. According to consumer research platform Brandwatch, there have been almost 500 million online posts on the topic since the beginning of 2020, so finding correct and relevant information from credible sources has become quite a puzzling task.
NHS posts about COVID-19 to spread reliable information
In the UK, one step taken by the NHS to work against fake news online was to increase its profile and receive account verification on Twitter for over 800 of their related Twitter accounts, including local Trusts, Boards and Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs). Taking data from these accounts, CREATION analysed the information shared and engagement received over the past two months.
As the pandemic became more prominent in the UK, NHS Twitter accounts began to post more often about the virus, guiding the public to more information on their website and encouraging them to stay at home or more regularly wash their hands. Over 50% of the posts from NHS Twitter accounts on COVID-19 linked to NHS.uk, providing a reliable source for this information.
Not only did the volume of posts about COVID-19 increase, but more NHS Twitter accounts, including local Trusts and CCGs became active in driving the spread of credible information.
Local vs national communications
In England, CCG Twitter accounts were not found to be posting in equal volume on the topic of COVID-19. The fewest number of CCG Twitter account posts in the last two months was four, but most shared over 100 times. The most active accounts were spread across the country, with two in Lincolnshire taking the fourth and fifth spot.
NB Since this analysis, @NHSWestKentCCG Twitter account has been closed. See @NHSKMCCG instead.
The content that was most impactful from these top posting accounts varied across the country. In the North West, North Cumbria CCG provided information for existing patients and those using local NHS services such as pharmacies.
Pharmacies are working tirelessly to ensure everyone’s medicines & healthcare needs are met. You can support by:
– Avoiding pharmacies if you have symptoms of COVID-19
– Being patient
– Ordering medicines as normal – there's no need to stockpile
More: https://t.co/mJ0kzZ2UZY pic.twitter.com/WWPNKaHtzh
— NHSNorthCumbria (@NHSNorthCumbria) March 20, 2020
In the South West, advice was given on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including how to identify and what to do if you have the symptoms.
— NHS Bristol, N Somerset & S Gloucestershire ICB (@BNSSG_ICB) March 17, 2020
In terms of public engagement with the posts of individual Twitter accounts, there was not a specific correlation between volume of posts and engagement from others online; more posts did not necessarily mean more engagement. Some content was more engaging and had a greater impact than others: the account belonging to NHS Grampian, a Board in Scotland, received over five times more engagement than other Trusts, Boards and CCGs. The chart below shows the volume of engagement (mentions or retweets, from any other public Twitter account) of NHS accounts specifically.
Contributing to their high levels of engagement, @NHSGrampian and other Scottish Board accounts shared a variety of accessible content using British Sign Language (BSL). This content had been produced by individuals or charities to inform the deaf community on COVID-19.
Thank you to Gerry Malley for producing this #COVID19 information video in British Sign Language (#BSL) based on our post from earlier today.https://t.co/cizBLDZIe0@NHS24 @scotgov @NESSNorthEast @deafscotMedia @BSLScotAct2015 #coronavirus (1/2) pic.twitter.com/F3QNDsKPaU
— NHS Grampian (@NHSGrampian) March 13, 2020
This BSL content appeared to be unique to each local account, yet a large portion of the messaging across NHS Twitter accounts was consistent: identical posts shared by a multitude of NHS accounts. The most common example of this was a tweet about handwashing, directing the reader to the NHS website. This same messaging was posted 137 times by 54 NHS accounts. Between these accounts, the post received 220 retweets.
Wash your hands more often for 20 seconds with soap and water. Or use hand sanitiser. Protect yourself and others.
— MFT NHS (@MFTnhs) March 10, 2020
Various accounts sharing this information received a differing level of engagement:
The same post shared a few days earlier by the @NHSuk account was retweeted over 1,000 times. Among these retweets were highly followed corporate accounts such as Boots and London Luton Airport, who will have contributed to the overall reach of this communication. The post shared by an NHS Trust, University Hospitals of North Midlands, was reposted 23 times, including by individuals who are employed in various roles at the trust.
Healthcare professionals engage with relevant NHS content
Taking a closer look at healthcare professional (HCP) engagement with NHS Twitter accounts, it was observed using CREATION Pinpoint® that HCPs engaged more with their own local accounts.
This allows HCPs to share relevant, local information with their following. One example is Kath Evans, a registered nurse at Barts Health, who shared one of their tweets giving information for their patients.
To help manage the number of visitors to our hospitals, you may be invited to join a virtual clinic – meaning your regular appointment will take place over the phone or online.
You'll be contacted beforehand by your hospital team to arrange this.
— Barts Health (@NHSBartsHealth) March 11, 2020
Throughout the initial months of the pandemic, NHS Twitter accounts have become more active online, combating false information by guiding and advising the public with credible sources. While larger corporate accounts such as @NHSuk receive higher volumes of engagement on Twitter, the lesser followed local Trust accounts were trusted sources for HCPs to share to their followers. This combined effort on a local and national level has allowed for trusted NHS messages to gain a wider audience, ultimately leading to a successful online campaign.
CREATION.co has been tracking the online HCP conversation relating to coronavirus since the start of the outbreak and is committed to supporting healthcare stakeholders globally. For more discussion about this research, and advice for health communicators in government, NGOs and health policy or pharmaceutical companies during COVID-19 pandemic, see our webinars: