An NHS project using social media to improve health by boosting digital inclusion has led to a 13 per cent increase in first time attendances for breast screenings in Stoke-on-Trent over four years.
The local initiative saw information about screening posted on Facebook community groups, which empowered and enabled women to make appointments by reducing their anxiety around breast examinations. It also allowed them to communicate quickly and easily with health practitioners to ask questions about the screening process.
This project is part of NHS Digital’s Widening Digital Participation Programme, which is commissioned by NHS England and aims to make digital health services and information accessible to everyone – particularly the most excluded people in society.
Twenty digital inclusion pathfinders are being run across the country in partnership with the charity Good Things Foundation to test new ways to help people access digital tools to improve their health.
Nationally, attendances for breast screening are in decline and most recent figures, from 2016-17, show the proportion of eligible women taking up breast screenings in England fell to its lowest rate in 10 years.
In the last financial year, 7,938 women in Stoke-on-Trent either didn’t attend their breast screening appointment or opted out of going – meaning around 65 cases of potential breast cancer were not detected.
Through this project, the North Midlands Breast Screening Service promoted their Facebook page on local community groups which their target group – women aged over 50 – regularly visited.
The screening team posted information such as patients explaining about how the process of breast screenings work and how it has affected them, and videos showing the rooms where it takes place. Posts were designed to encourage women to share them and so spread the message about the benefits and importance of breast screenings.
The service’s Facebook page also answered questions in the group and by direct messaging, enabling women to book appointments more easily.
Data on attendances for first time appointments at the North Midlands Breast Screening Service shows they increased by an average of 12.9 per cent between three-year screening cycles from 2014 to 2018.
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Gina Newman, Health Improvement Practitioner at the North Midlands Breast Screening Service, said:
“This is a fantastic idea and the community aspect of the group is so powerful that we now have 1,138 followers.
“We have seen an increase in the number of ladies who have booked and attended their appointments, who might not have done otherwise. It’s great to see the members supporting one another through their own journeys and sharing the page further with their family and friends.”
Pete Nuckley, Service Delivery Manager at Good Things Foundation, said: “It’s been fantastic to see the increase in attendance rates across the Stoke pathfinder area.
“It shows that being able to receive quality information about breast screenings and ask questions makes the whole process more human – and that’s key to engaging patients in their own healthcare.”
Juliet Bauer, Chief Digital Officer at NHS England, said: “The Stoke project is an example of how digital channels can be used to communicate with patients, providing local advice and answer key concerns.
“This work is part of the NHS’s wider commitment to digitally transform the way we work with all of our patients, improving the information we provide and empowering the public to take charge of their own health and care.”
A Facebook spokesperson said: “Our mission is to give people the power to build community and we are thrilled that Stoke-on-Trent Clinical Commissioning Group has been able to use Facebook to drive awareness of such a vitally important issue.”
Pam Lowe was prompted to go for breast screening thanks to the Facebook project.
“I’d had a call for my regular screening and fully intended to go,” said the 58-year-old.
“In the end, for one reason or another I missed the date.”
Then Pam saw a post in a Facebook group about the village where she lives promoting a visit by the mobile breast screening unit.
“I contacted them via Facebook Messenger and Gina Newman replied and told me it had moved on from my area, but she could sort me out with an appointment at the hospital instead. That was how I started the process and I made sure to see it through.”
She underwent the screening, which came back clear, and she has since encouraged her friends to use the service.
“I spend quite a lot of time on my iPad and on Facebook, which made it so convenient for me.
“Because of my positive experience, I share the page on Facebook and friends of mine have shared it too.
“It’s just a brilliant way to do it. I’ve told colleagues and friends alike to just go for it.”