Far from being a threat to hospitals, patients’ use of social media platforms such as Twitter can provide valuable real-time information, says Nigel Clarke

Man in bed using laptop

Hospital budgets are tight. Managers are doing everything possible to direct resources to the frontline. The public, their anger fuelled by tabloid newspapers, stand by ready to criticise costs that aren’t directed towards patient care.

Public Wi-Fi in hospitals doesn’t make people better. Wi-Fi is an additional service which could generate extra cash for a hospital. With longer stays than a typical coffee shop it might make sense to charge, say, £5 for 24-hour access.

And regulated use would stop people trying to download too much data. It’s a tempting proposition for any trust finance team.

‘Social media isn’t just a whingers’ charter. It’s much more constructive than that caricature’

That was a key finding from a recent study by Trufflenet into how people used social media to talk about hospitals. It’s enough to make any chief executive worried about patient satisfaction figures sit up straight.

But social media isn’t just a whingers’ charter. It’s much more constructive than that caricature. In fact, ready availability of social media can give a much more rounded perspective of public opinion. The same study found three out of four comments were positive. Just one in 10 of the negative statements were about waiting times.

Intriguingly, one in three comments about one hospital commented on its free Wi-Fi. It’s a broad range of discussion; there is much to learn. The more people that comment on a hospital performance, the better for management. 

Beyond borders

This data can provide a rich layer of additional management indicators. The speed of social media data, particularly from Twitter, can give a minute-by-minute read-out of issues that are developing in the hospital. Almost half of comments about a department mentioned accident and emergency.

Longer form comments on patients’ forums, such as patientopinion.co.uk can give richer qualitative insight into a patient’s experience.

The information is valuable beyond a hospital’s borders. Trufflenet’s research identified patient complaints: valuable information if you are a regulator looking to get under the skin of a hospital. A team at the Cabinet Office is currently exploring how it can use patient opinion to track the implementation of government policies; this would be one example for the NHS.

Listening to social media isn’t a replacement for formal patient consultation. Some patient groups remain unlikely to tweet their experience during 2013. But the more dialogue that a hospital can stimulate among its patient community, the richer, more dynamic information managers will have about their performance at their fingertips, which they can use to monitor and improve services. Big hotels do this; what about hospitals?

Nigel Clarke is executive chairman and founder of Trufflenet