Communications ‘critical’ at NHS 24

Blind spot: NHS 24


HERE’S something that gets my goat in a big way: Organisations who purport to embrace the modern advantages of social media but continue to live in the past.

Broadly, I refer to bodies who fail spectacularly to grasp the concept that Twitter, Facebook, et al, are means of communication and are, therefore, “live” 24 hours a day. The key is in the words “social” and “media”, the latter being the more important of the two.

Specifically, I refer to NHS 24, which, for the uninitiated, is an “online and telephone-based health information and self-care service”. In plain language, it is who you call if you are in need of medical help outside of “normal” hours.

Now, my gripe is not with NHS 24 generally and its fine frontline medical professionals. It relates to its management – in particular its communications management.

As I regularly state, like a stuck CD, to those in my circle of influence, social media is a form of publishing. This principle is not overly important for those using the likes of Twitter for personal use but it is extremely so for businesses and large bodies who employ it to enhance their reputation or reach target audiences.

Thus, organisational information has to be managed and distributed on a professional, almost journalistic, basis. Journalistic? Well, maybe not always and not in all cases. But professional is a must. And in the “real” world would be a bonus.

My infuriation concerns an elderly male relative with a history of medical problems and associated surgery. He has other minor conditions which do not over-complicate his medical picture.

On Friday (August 24), he exhibited signs of internal bleeding and started to suffer pain. At about 7.30pm, he contacted NHS24 by telephone, as is the prescribed procedure in the absence of an out-of-hours service from his GP.

NHS 24 informed him that a nurse would call him back within three hours. THREE hours? Unacceptable, in my opinion. One: yes. Three: no.

What to do in a situation such as this when you wish to make your disapproval known to a mammoth organisation with a bewildering plethora of contact options, most of which are, for one reason or another unappealing?

I decided to do the current thing by Tweeting about the circumstances developing and over which I had no control – but not in a “scattergun” way. I discovered NHS 24 have a Twitter account, so I “mentioned” the organisation, so they would get to learn of my concern. How wrong I was.

Just for the record, I also hash-tagged my Tweet #nhs #health and #scotland in the belief (mistaken, it turns out) that these subject matters would be monitored by NHS 24 and others managing our nation’s healthcare services.

After three hours or so, my relative was told to attend the out-of-hours care service at the new Victoria Hospital in Glasgow, UK, which is not far from his home. He was too unwell and in too much pain to get behind the wheel of a car, so my wife drove him there.

He was seen by a nurse – in reasonable time – but she was of the opinion that, because of his medical history and the symptoms he was presenting, he required to be seen by a doctor.

So he was dispatched across the road to the Accident and Emergency unit at the ageing Victoria Infirmary, which is nearing the end of its life after more than 120 years of service to the people of the south side of Glasgow.

There, he sat for nigh on four hours in, shall we say, a less-than-comfortable environment (Friday and Saturday nights in A&E units in Glasgow are the stuff of bloody legend, which is why I joined my wife) until he was finally seen by a doctor at the back of 4am.

While filling the protector role and eyeing suspicious-looking characters around me, I put out another couple of Tweets, again name-checking @NHS24. My final Tweet on the subject that night said: “That’s six hours. Still not seen by a doctor.”

The amount of time between his first phone call and his first point of contact with a doctor was about seven hours in total. If anyone thinks this is acceptable, I do not wish to share their planet.

In the end, my relative was discharged, to be driven home by bloodshot-eyed and somewhat mystified me. Mystified because it suddenly occurred to me in my tired state that not one of my Tweets had elicited anything resembling a response from NHS 24 – or anyone else involved in the running Scotland’s NHS.

Later that day, after three hours’ sleep, I plunked for one last angry Tweet into the uncaring ether: “Nearly 7 hours between first point of contact with @NHS24 and consultation with a doctor is unacceptable. #nhs #health.”

Sunday passed without incident and then on the Monday morning, out of the blue it seemed, on my smartphone, appeared a Twitter message from @NHS24, apologising that my experience “wasn’t positive” and offering me the chance to complain officially through the labyrinthine bureaucratic channels typical of the NHS.

It then struck me: These people probably don’t work at the weekends. Or, at least, they don’t monitor their Twitter account outside the old Monday to Friday routine. And I bet they don’t monitor it outside of the old nine-to-five either. If true, based on the eight-hour-day principle, that means the Twitter account is being “managed” for a period of 40 hours in a seven-day week.

The organisation is called NHS 24. It provides help 24/7. But it only engages with its target audience for one and two-thirds days of a full week. That’s not 24/7. It’s not even 24/5. It’s 24/1-and-a-bit. Or 8/5. That is not going to do a whole heap of good. And it will not cut the mustard as social media streams continue to expand and those using them expect prompt communication from large bodies who have “embraced the space”.

So my message (apart from my redundant Tweets on the night in question) to NHS 24 managers is: I’m not filling out a form or writing a letter, which will no doubt end up in a shredder after being “considered” by numerous committees of placemen and women.

Instead, read my blog post and learn. This is how communication works now. Everyone can have a voice in the digital domain. Large organisations need to switch on their radar, all day, every day, if they wish to have a credible, interactive presence here.

They need to catch up and stay with transformational media developments. If any organisation is serious inhabiting the social media sphere, they need to truly comprehend the two words “social” and “media”. If they don’t, they have a choice: either ask for assistance from someone who does or get out.

That’s my medicine prescribed. Oh, and I’m going to Tweet this blog post, mentioning NHS 24 in the process.

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