Thinking about proper, practical strategy for NHS communicators

One of my absolute highlights of the past year has been the opportunity to work with NHS communicators on a post grad course run by NHS Improvement and the Centre for Health and Communications Research.

It’s met lots of needs for me. A chance to reconnect with issues around NHS comms. And an opportunity to consolidate some ideas I’ve had for a while about the uneasiness and potential cross over between digital transformation projects and communications.

These two are often uneasy bedfellows, but I really think there’s an opportunity to bridge a perceived gap by employing testing, iteration and open working in the development of communications projects.

I think it landed well with the 30 or so NHS communicators I’ve met so far. We certainly had a lot of fun completing the exercises, and all in the genteel surroundings of Missenden Abbey.

Here are the slides:

NHS CHCR slides v2_compressed

Missenden Abbey
Missenden Abbey – rural setting makes a change from the usual conference suites

Are health messages ever social?

I’m excited about taking part in my first #nhssm chat in quite a long time. On Wednesday 11 March – NHS Change Day – we’ll be talking about how the NHS can use social media to deliver tricky messages to different audiences. The chat starts from 8pm on the #nhssm hashtag.

The messages I have in mind are about sexual health and testing for STIs, but the chat could take us anywhere – smoking, mental health, alcohol. What I’m keen to find out is whether these topics are social at all. Do we, as members of the public, want to be approached online about improving our health, and if so, what are the most effective channels? Are there more private, selective social channels such as WhatsApp, that can help the NHS be part of an existing conversation?

In particular, I’m interested in how we reachLGBT, BME and teen audiences.

My interest has been spurred on by a very exciting project I have been involved in and the feedback I have heard and read from focus groups and healthcare workers. Suffice to say I don’t think a hashtag or Facebook page will solve this one.

Join in from 8pm on Wednesday and let’s see what knowledge we can share and how we might learn from each other.

The best training ever

Regardless of what the HR manual says, people working in digital need to live and breathe it.

You don’t have to be obsessed with social media, or a coder, or been doing whatever-it-is-you-do for that long. But you have to be passionate about something to do with the web.

That gets you started. Then you have to throw yourself in at the deep end, regardless of your seniority or experience. There’s no point pretending anyone ever knows it all, or can afford to ignore something they are not sure about.

I was in at the deep end when I started growing the #nhssm community with Alex Talbott, Colin Wren and Gemma Finnegan.

When Alex introduced himself and pitched the idea of a weekly Twitter chat for healthcare workers interested in social media, I was sceptical. It sounded like a void that didn’t need to be filled and would suck up more time than it was worth.

Happily, I was very, very wrong. A trickle of NHS communicators, nurses and doctors grew into a steady stream of health professionals, expanding to cover mental health workers, people working in private healthcare, academics and managers. Within a matter of months 8pm on a Wednesday evening became the most hectic part of my working week: dash home or stay late in the office, promote a topic or theme, seed some questions, then help facilitate.

Alex, Colin and I ended up meeting in a pub most Wednesdays, with Gemma Skyped in from Cornwall or on IM. The social side of it was no hardship, but the chats were so busy that it was nice to have each other there for support.

We were all learning a huge amount too: the spiky characters; their passion, arguments and tone all colliding in one short 60 minute burst of energy. Some nights there was a huge amount of useful information to curate and share, but it was also a steep learning curve knowing how to moderate conversation, to ensure people with useful contributions didn’t feel left out or were put off altogether.

I failed over and over. Topics that were of no interest, over moderating some people, ignoring others. Obsessing about branding and formalising this community, while at the same time dodging the occasional sniff from a compliance or security team.

Is this official? On your own time or the public’s? Who cares? I was learning more about online conversation and helping to manage a community than I could have experienced in a lifetime of courses or tuition.

The scary part was when we realised that this was not a true sandbox that we could afford to mess up. Exciting but serious opportunities came along: running an #nhssm conference with the Guardian, presenting to NHS Directors, talking to European health professionals.

And all the while the weekly chats continued to be the bulk of the work and the mainstay activity.

My own confidence to get involved with online conversations, to contribute, participate and defend a view, developed immeasurably. I now see those same situations I faced on Wednesday evenings, each time I look at a feed, forum or comment thread.

The best bit is that #nhssm is still out there and for Alex, Colin and Gemma it has helped them earn money for their expertise. Most of all it has helped make the NHS more open to social media. Things have moved a long way since that first phone call.

Want to really understand the value of conversations online? Get stuck in.

From Land’s End to new horizons

Last weekend I found myself sat in an impossibly pretty Cornish village with colleagues from the #nhssm community. We’d got together to talk about how we can help to develop this modest community of healthcare professionals and communicators, which started a couple of years.

What started as a one-off hashtag to promote a single event now feels like a proper responsibility, consumes a fair amount of time and some cash too.

We’ve had some ideas about to make all the incredibly useful conversations and content that comes out of the chats more widely available, and how we might extend the conversation beyond a chat once a week and the blog. We’ve also identified a need to help the community answer the frequent questions and requests that we receive. First we need to put these ideas to the community as a whole, so more on that soon.

What really struck me as we strolled along the harbour side was the way in which this had all come together. Although three of us are geographically close, there is very little chance any of us would have ever met were it not for making the connection online. And putting real people to avatars is a significant next step in that relationship.

I don’t think we all have that much in common outside of #nhssm and our work, but our common enthusiasm for what we’re doing seems to be enough.

Getting to know each other as well as develop an online community at the same time feels like quite a challenge, but one that’s worth persevering with.

By coincidence this week is going to be another big one for #nhssm. On Tuesday 22 November we’re contributing to two events: the Guardian Social Media in Healthcare conference in London, and the AHCM conference in Birmingham. All the ideas and topics that we’re covering at each event have come from the #nhssm community and we’ll be sharing the feedback and new ideas online, so keep an eye on the hashtag this Tuesday.

Doctors 2.0 – healthcare and social media

June 22 and 23, 2011, marks the arrival of a new conference, Doctors 2.0, in Paris.

The event is all about understanding how healthcare practitioners around the world use web 2.0 tools to communicate with colleagues and patients. Participants range from doctors to community managers, healthcare providers, the public sector and, of course, patients.

Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris
Doctors 2.0 will be held at Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris. Doesn't look too shabby as conference venues go.

I will be participating in a panel on Thursday 23, moderated by Bryan Vartabedian of 33 Charts. Bryan is a pediatric gastroenterologist at Texas Children’s Hospital, his blog is always very interesting and I am really looking forward to meeting him. I will be joined on the panel by Jorge Juan Fernandez Garcia of the Hospital San Juan de Dios and Alexander Schachinger of Humboldt University. We’ll be discussing patient’s and professional’s experience of using social media, and how best practice compares between the UK and USA.

You can see the whole agenda here, and follow the build-up and coverage by following #doctors20 on Twitter.

I have less than 48 hours to make the most of my visit, so I want to make it as worthwhile as possible. If you have a burning question or comment to share with an international audience of healthcare professionals, drop me a line, and I will ask it.

Image courtesy of