Social media: A GP marginal gain?

Seven years ago Kate Allatt suffered a brainstem stroke and was subsequently diagnosed with locked-in syndrome (LIS). Since then she has made an incredible recovery – one that’s helped her to reflect on patient care and healthcare services. These experiences have led her to deliver presentations at TED Talks, travel the world carrying out advocacy work with LIS patients and collaborate with the primary and secondary care communities, focusing on improving patient-centred care. Here she explains why social media within practices should be prioritised to engage and shape conversations with patients

I gave a speech last week to GP practice manager members of CHEC – the leading provider of education, training, referrals management and project leadership for GP practices and primary care.  The audience were engaged and keen to hear what my ‘mind-blowing’ ways to improve patient services in GP surgeries were. 

But why should they listen to little old me?

Well, back in 2010, at the of 39 years, I became a very heavy user of the NHS after my right vertebral artery dissection, occlusion and infarction of my Pons; for non-medical people like me, this was a ‘brainstem stroke’ with a locked in syndrome (LIS) diagnosis.

So imagine being able to think, feel, see and hear – yet be completely unable to voluntarily move a single muscle or communicate? The stuff of nightmares I’m sure you will agree? My recovery has been spectacular – I even made it to Wikipedia. By no means am I the only one, after all my global and voluntary LIS advocacy over the last 6 years – but my own experience, and that of countless others, has taught much.

Firstly, self-belief, combined with patient motivation and grit, really does improve health outcomes and help people achieve anything in life.  Take Klaudia, 24, from Poland who could only turn her wrist slightly and who, within ten hours of being inspired to try at her bedside, was able to turn her wrist fully over! Or what about Christine Waddell – a long term, fully LIS survivor- who made phenomenal and unexpected physical gains after years of nothing; with just a sprinkling of inspiration, belief and her enormous effort she blew everyone’s mind.

She lost her headrest after seventeen years because she fired up her previously dormant nerves and proved that the ‘use it or lose it’ statement to be a lie. She was able to support herself on a plinth and, two years following that, she, incredibly, ate and drank again after nineteen years of being nil-by-mouth.

Marginal gains

Secondly, primary and secondary care should integrate to start thinking in terms of ‘marginal gains’. Sir Dave Brailsford OBE, GB cycling visionary, had this performance philosophy which was, ‘small incremental improvements in any process adding up to a significant improvement when they are all added together.’

This makes me think, what small changes could GP surgeries make to improve their efficiency and effectiveness? Should we start asking patients to rate their GP services like they do at airports? Explore whether your chair heights or waiting room radios actually make it difficult for patients with physical or hearing impairments to sit or hear your GP calls? Should you introduce GP-patient role playing exercises or monthly 10-minute case studies to share good practice with other GPs in your surgery?

Our NHS should start to embrace, not fear, the huge social media opportunities which, I think, could not only reduce GP appointments, but also improve patient outcomes. For example, social media could support stroke improvement – physical, emotional or psychological– or help get patients to adhere to diabetic foot interventions or eat more healthily or exercise more or be less isolated in their communities etc., etc.  

Switching to social media

Working collaboratively with patients of all ages, how could you exploit the social media opportunity in your surgery? For example, how could you minimise social media resource issues, and manage potentially offensive posts, by providing relevant services for your more digitally engaged patients? I do get a sense that patient participation panels in GP surgeries tend to be full of older and more traditionally engaged patients.

How can you, perhaps, use social media to encourage patients to be connected with other patient mentors who suffer similar chronic illnesses? Think about how many of us use Facebook and then contrast that with thinking about how many practices also use Facebook effectively with patients? Isn’t there a Facebook opportunity here?

We have just had a sobering UK election and it strikes me that the Conservatives severely underestimated the power of social media to engage and mobilise our digitally engaged electorate.

About the author

Kate is a stroke survivor, blogger, activist, speaker and internationally published author of Running Free – Breaking out of Locked in Syndrome @KateAllatt

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