The health service has a reputation – though perhaps not entirely warranted – for looking fondly to the past, particularly at times of great change.
Performance targets and care standards are usually held up against the (halcyon) days of the early NHS, and even periods before that, as advances in medicine and treatment seem to correlate exactly to a decline in how the health system is seen to be performing.
And with the public view of the health service often just one “exposé” away from full scale distrust, the next couple of years could be an absolutely vital period for the government, the NHS and the public in the formation of a harmonious three-way marriage.
One of the ways in which NHS organisations are reaching out to the public, as opposed to waiting for them to show up at the doors, is through less traditional and more immediate communication channels.
Twitter, which is infiltrating just about every sector at present, has seen everyone from PCTs and FTs to managers, nurses and private hospitals and providers set up profiles through which to engage more directly with service users and patients.
Once an individual or organisation creates a Twitter profile, others who might be interested in what they have to say ‘follow’ their profile – in other words, subscribe to their Twitter updates.
As an example, some trusts are using the site as a digital soapbox, to better share news and important information with their users, helping direct people to their website to find out the latest quicker than ever before.
Other trusts, however, are taking the bolder step of using Twitter to engage one-on-one with some of their users: answering requests for specific advice, giving out details on available services or just sharing handy health guidance for a grateful few.
When it comes to complaints, the site provides a direct and less faceless channel through which to approach the organisations. And while issues aren’t always resolved within Twitter’s 140 character limit, the key is that it’s proving to be a crucial link between NHS bodies and patients, ensuring a channel for dialogue between the two remains open and available.
Already revolutionising the relationship between provider and consumer in other industries, the health sector seems on the verge of going the same way, with over 100 ‘tweeting’ trusts on HSJ’s Twitter list.
But it’s not just in popular social media where the NHS is dipping its toe.
NHS Direct is imminently launching an ‘app’ (mobile application) for smartphones such as Blackberry and iPhone devices, which is likely to allow users to look up symptoms on mental health and sexual conditions and find out further related information.
It forms part of the service’s plans to become an “online-first” resource, rather than a telephone-based service.
And with an estimated 16 million of the UK population – roughly 25 per cent – accessing the internet from their mobile phones, the NHS Direct website exceeding 155,000 mobile users a month and billions of apps being downloaded every year, the app market is undoubtedly prime for the health sector to move into.
The approach seems certain to put more power into the hands of the public when it comes to getting health advice, checking symptoms or just keeping abreast of important health information, something which in the pace of today’s world is of increasing importance to the public.
It may take a little while to come to fruition – even the relatively old hat telehealth programmes are struggling to get take-up, despite repeated endorsements – but the question of whether the health service will embrace technology is one of when, rather than if. The NHS organisations getting into the game now are already benefiting, and following their lead (as well as their Twitter feed) is where the smart money’s going.