Social media for public health?

Published: 21 March 2017 Ezine

Author: Dr Leslie Robinson

Last year I was extremely proud when the WoMMeN (Word of Mouth Mammogram-e Network) team was awarded the SCoR team of the year. In the following I outline how Social Media (SoMe) underpins the principles of WoMMeN and the potential value of SoMe for radiographers. I’ll then touch on the frustrations that come with being an advocate of SoMe in health.

The WoMMeN hub uses SoMe to provide information about breast screening to the public. It uses SoMe because this is what the public appear to want; to engage with practitioners on-line. Ofcom1 statistics show that ~75% of people go on-line for health related information and a growing number of people want to talk to others about their health conditions2.

More encouraging still, the NHS Communication Strategy “the Power of Information”(2012)3 advocates this approach. It states that patients should be able to “keep in touch with health and care professionals electronically” and that staff will be able to “use IT more to communicate with provide better services”.

This move towards on-line conversations about health, along with study results that showed women felt uninformed about breast screening4, led to the conception of WoMMeN. Four years later, in March 2016, our website was launched. Since then we’ve had 4,555 visits and 13,679 page views. We also have 68 members registered on our forums.

WoMMeN has also been featured in:

  • Royal Society for Public Health’s publication, Healthy Conversations
  • Aunt’s (US radiology teaching site)
  • The Academy of NHS Fab stuff
  • University of Salford featured blogs

But why bother? Do on-line resources and SoMe have any impact on patient and public behaviour?

We’ve just started to evaluate the hub to find out and early signs are promising. Our pilot survey which was undertaken between October and December 2016 showed that around 37% of the 57 participants said they would be more likely to go for breast screening as a result of visiting the hub, 28% said possibly and the rest had already made their minds up. All agreed that the hub was a very useful source of information.

Now we REALLY need to get women coming to the hub. We’d love to have the WoMMeN contact details included on breast screening invite letters but some wheels turn particularly slowly! Therefore, instead, we’ve been working with digital marketing experts to learn how to promote the hub through on-line methods. This has been enlightening. Through these experts, we’ve also learned how to direct specific groups to the hub through clever targeting of on-line ads to low up-take populations. This is proving really effective with up to 25% of visitors coming to the hub as a result of these ads.

SoMe therefore has the potential to have a positive impact on patient and public behaviour, and we can do clever things with digital marketing to make sure the right messages get through to the right people. Furthermore, SoMe is an excellent communication tool because it can reach geographically and demographically diverse groups much more easily and cheaply than face-to-face initiatives. This is particularly important now that AHPs are being expected to develop and strengthen their Public Health role5. It also offers an ideal opportunity for radiographers to promote their profession.

However, 2016 was a year of mixed blessings; although elated to win the award (heralding a nod to the positive value of SoMe) we were disappointed at having had to cancel the College of Radiographers’ SoMe study day. This had been planned for April 2017 but by the end of December we only had seven registrants so the College decided to pull the plug; perhaps a case of people not knowing what they need to know?

Lack of enthusiasm to explore SoMe may, however, be due to the perceived dangers and risks of communicating on-line in a public space, which would reflect the difficulties we’ve encountered in the WoMMeN work. Last year, we held four national action research workshops (funded by the College of Radiographers’ CoRIPS scheme) to explore breast screening practitioners’ attitudes to using SoMe in their practice. 

Whilst many attendees were enthused by our ideas, and a number have gone on to set up SoMe accounts for their own services, they were also anxious about whether they would be supported to speak on-line with clients by their profession, managers and employers. Some were even asked not to attend the workshops. One person emailed me, “I recently booked on to the above workshop day, however, my line manager is not keen that I should attend this now, because my boss is concerned about the idea of using social media in our professional roles.”

In any form of professional communication, be this face-to-face, on the telephone or on-line, we are accountable and must ensure we follow the professional codes and standards of conduct. If we are confident that we can do this in our day-to-day, face-to-face practice, why is it perceived to be problematic on-line?

Indeed, on-line communication affords us the opportunity to take a moment (or a day!) to come up with an appropriate and accurate response! If you’re at all concerned, do review the SCoR SoMe guidelines6 which help explain these issues further and provide a useful source of support and information.

It is understandable that those with a responsibility for risk management are reticent to engage in a concept that is all too frequently reported in a negative light. This is a shame because, as the WoMMeN project (and countless others) have shown, managed professionally, SoME has much to offer the patient and the practitioner.

The WoMMeN team would love to hear your thoughts, oh and we’d be delighted if you could get your friends and family to visit the website!


  1. Ofcom Adult’s media use and attitude report (2016).
  2. Smailhodzic E, Hooijsma W, Boonstra A, and Langley DJ (2016) Social Media Use in Healthcare: A systematic review of effects on patients and on their relationship with health care professionals BMC Health Services Research.
  3. Department of Health. (2012). The power of information: putting all of us in control of the health information we need. London: Department of Health.
  4. Robinson L, Griffiths M, Wray J, Ure C, Shires G, Stein-Hodgins J R, Hill C, Hilton B. (2015) Preparing women for breast screening mammography: A feasibility study to determine the potential value of an on-line social network and information hub Radiography 21 (4), pp. 308-314.
  5. Allied Health Professions Federation (2016) A strategy to develop the capacity, impact and profile of allied health professionals in public health 2-15-2018.
  6. Tucker K (2015) SoMeRAD: Guidance for the radiography workforce on the professional use of Social Media. London: Society and College of Radiographers.