Guest blog by Dr Geraint Preest
GP Partner, Pencoed Medical Centre
Primary care Editor, onExamination from BMJ Learning
Is it just that I’m getting old or is general practice busier than ever? With increasing demands from all quarters it would seem illogical to add to our workload by maintaining a Twitter account. However, Twitter has become an invaluable way of keeping our patients informed and educated and has helped us tremendously.
More than a decade ago, we were one of the first practices in the UK to develop an online presence. We developed our first website in-house and have maintained full control ever since. We won a prestigious award for our efforts and we received lots of favourable comments from our patients (as well as visitors from distant shores who found some of our health information pages very useful).
As confirmed “early adopters”, we were quite late into Twitter. Put off by the possibility of tweeting something silly to a global audience and the perceived effort of maintaining a Twitter feed (because, let’s be honest, if you don’t keep it going then it’s hardly any use), we decided to hold back and watch while others led the way. The other disincentive (or “excuse”, depending on how you look at it) was that the majority of Tweeters seemed to be young and trendy and we thought that we’d miss most of our – ahem – more “mature” patients.
Then it dawned on us. Why didn’t we incorporate a live Twitter feed into our website? Twitter actually makes it very easy for you to do this and anyone with a basic grasp of web design can incorporate a live Twitter feed into a web page in less than 15 minutes. So that’s what we did and now all of the visitors to our “Home” and “News” pages get a live feed of our tweets, without having to be signed up to Twitter themselves.
So what do we tweet and how does it help? Who does the tweeting?
All of the GP partners and the practice manager have access to the account and can tweet from a PC or from anywhere on their mobile phone – Apple, Blackberry or Android. We tweet about changes to services and helpful information – these could be information written by us or information provided by reputable sources (such as NHS organisations or the Health Protection Agency, but it could be any information that we’ve appraised and deemed appropriate) which is “retweeted” from our account.
The trouble with spreading ourselves thinly between two surgeries, one of which is built on a very steep road which provides a perennial headache for us when the snow arrives, is logistics. We’ve found that when we’ve had heavy snowfall and access is very difficult, it’s much better – and safer for our patients – to operate out of our main surgery. During the recent heavy snowfall we were able to broadcast any service changes within seconds. We also had information from patients about weather conditions in the locality, with one patient offering to take a picture of the deep snow outside our branch surgery, showing that access was impossible. If clinics are cancelled for whatever reason, we can broadcast this within seconds – from the car if necessary and it’s a straightforward as sending a text. This shows up instantly on our website and is visible even if our patients don’t have a Twitter account. Hardly an arduous task. We could even “retweet” information from the local hospital about their cancelled outpatient appointments to help any of our patients who would otherwise have had a wasted journey.
Patients often complain (justifiably on many occasions) that they can’t get to see us. I wonder, sometimes, whether they need to be experts on “the system” to know whether to pre-book, how to see us quickly, when to try to see us – is it better to wait until the busy morning rush is over or to try to phone first thing? Are they helping us by rolling up at A&E instead? How are they to know? So, we’ve started tweeting the options available to patients – prebook with a named Dr in advance or arrive at open access in the morning and wait their turn. Mondays are always busier – common sense to us, but how are they to know? We’ve even resorted to sending “live updates” of open access waiting time. This was an interesting experiment and we’ve considered whether broadcasting the long wait on busy mornings would “put off” those who really should be seeing us, as well as agitating those who are keen to criticise us. Far better to help patients by letting them know when the waiting times are shorter.
There is a drive by the local health board and the local hospitals to cut waste from over-ordering repeat medication or by inappropriately attending A&E with “GP problems” – again, I worry sometimes that patients need to be experts on “the system” to know what to do and where to go. Again, we address this by tweeting relevant information about what to do and where to go. A recent study by Cancer Research UK demonstrated that a high percentage of patients defer seeing their doctor due to difficulties getting appointments, so we tweeted this link along with advice to say that patients could be seen the same day if they contacted our open access clinic before 10:30am and that it doesn’t have to be deemed “an emergency” either – if they’re simply worried and don’t mind waiting their turn, that’s fine.
The ability to link information and web pages or PDFs to our tweets is a real asset. A popular feature is our “What illnesses are we seeing at the moment?”. During a chickenpox outbreak we could tweet links to reputable advice about treatment and what to do in the case of pregnant women. We’re often asked for advice about returning to school after an infectious disease. No problem – the HPA have a very informative chart which gives “return to school times” for a number of common infectious diseases, so we tweet that as well. By following relevant Twitterers, we are provided with lots of useful information that we can filter and pass on to our patients, without having to spend time hunting down resources.
Ah, but I know what you’re saying “It takes a lot of time to do this”. Well, no actually. I can send a tweet from a smartphone in less than a minute. With the flick of a thumb I can scan tweets from those we follow, to weed out useful information, in less than a minute. It doesn’t take a lot of time, it just takes the motivation to do it.
Ultimately, it helps us to provide a better service, is valued by our patients and just may save us time by more efficient use of resources. There’s a lot of satisfaction to be had doing that.
Give it a go. You’ll be surprised by the results. If you want a few more ideas, take a look at the feed on our website, www.pencoedmedical.co.uk or check us out on Twitter @PencoedMedical