@NHS handle makes an impact with 'personal stories' year on Twitter

The @NHS Twitter account, which is curated by a different person each week, has attracted 24,000 followers after one year of operation.

Illustration credit: NHS England
Illustration credit: NHS England

Rachel Royall, director of comms at NHS Digital who conceived the account while working at a hospital trust, said it had proven to be a powerful medium for patients and staff to tell their stories.

"It’s a conversation and it connects people," she told PRWeek.

"My vision for it was that if we could get patients to tell their stories then different parts of the NHS could come in and help with solutions for some of the things that don’t go well as well as things which do go well."

So far 45 different patients and staff have used the account to talk about the health service, including this week’s curator Fayaz, who is being treated for B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

"There’s a real cross-section of people who follow the account, from professionals to patients to research groups.

"You can see the conversation. One curator was a parent whose child was a patient and you could see all the NHS suppliers looking at how they can redesign some of the equipment so that it’s more child-friendly."

The account, which is attracting nearly 2.5 million impressions per month on average, was itself born from a conversation on Twitter in early 2016, Royall told PRWeek.

This was during a three-year stint as director of comms and marketing at Barking, Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals NHS Trust.

Royall had already trialled a successful version of the idea at the trust before going national with it, although she remembers meeting some resistance from her colleagues.

She said: "I suggested to people we were going to open up and take this proactive approach to Twitter. Obviously there was quite a bit of negativity, quite a bit of fear and people saying ‘are you sure about this?’. But it’s that thing about how we trust these people with the public’s life but you’re not going to trust them with a tweet?"

Now read: NHS Digital's Rachel Royall on the summer cyber-attack, the glass ceiling and the challenge for all public sector communicators

Later she was on Twitter and discovered that Sweden handed over its Twitter feed each week to a different citizen.

She said: "I thought, how brilliant is that? I sent a tweet saying wouldn’t it be wonderful if we did this for the NHS. I included Simon Enright, director of communications at NHS England, and he replied ‘if you get over 100 people who can support it by the end of the day I’ll put my digital team on it’. We blew that target out of the water."

Royall said the first curator of @NHS was a powerful voice: "It was really quite emotional because the first guy who did it, Richard Orchard, was a guy in his forties who had been diagnosed with cancer and he was one of our patients. Over the course of that first week, you powerfully heard about his diagnosis of cancer, how it made him feel, the effect it had on his life, the care he received, the good things, the bad things and the things that could be improved."

Royall, who went on to join NHS Digital as director of comms in June this year, said the feed also served as a way of having a "more objective conversation" about the health service than the frequently heard extreme views that it is either "perfect" or "doomed".

"I’m sure it’s somewhere in the middle," she said. "It’s not brilliant but some bits need fixing. Let’s have a more objective conversation about it and put in those stories."

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