Digital professionalism in the age of social networks

Social media is now enmeshed in everyone’s lives. More than eight out of 10 (83%) adults go online using any device in any location. Facebook has 31 million users in the UK, while Twitter has 15 million active users, according to socialmediatoday. For healthcare professionals, Twitter has become the online community tool of choice to connect with colleagues and their communities.

People and communities

At a Department of Health School Nursing Technology Event last month, Teresa Chinn, who founded @wenurses, presented the case for social media engagement to her peers. Like most professionals who started using social media a few years back, she had no steer on how to use it. No guidance had been published on Twitter best practice, few of her colleagues or friends were using it and most people she spoke to discarded it as an irrelevance or even a risk. That was then, however.

Three years later she’s running, a Twitter network of healthcare professionals that include school nurses, health visitors, midwives and GPs, among others. After years tweeting with her colleagues in relative isolation and anonymity, it was the NHS social media guidelines, published in 2012, that gave Teresa the encouragement she needed.

”It was a rubber stamp,” she says. “It gave healthcare workers the confidence to start experimenting.”

Initially, Teresa and a few volunteers focused their tweetchats on @wenurses with NHS funding support.

“The first tweetchat had 18 people who turned up online. I was nervous that nobody would come, but that’s never happened,” she says. “Each of the communities is run by a group of volunteers, so doctors run doctors, school nurses run their own and so on.”

And it’s not only professionals who are joining the tweetchats. Other members of the community, including teenagers, also join in or “lurk”, which means reading tweets but not joining in on the conversations.

“With @wenurses we had 20,651 interactions last month, which shows how people are engaging. We have evidence that engagement works; we have examples. We have a highly engaged group; people need to be able to see “what’s in it for me”. That’s the CPD side. People can get something out of it.”

But for Teresa there’s still a long way to go for tweetchats to become mainstream, part of professional development: “At the moment it’s a wave that’s waiting to crash. But this is the way people are now communicating and we have to be part of that.

“If not then people are doing it without us and even talking about us without our involvement.”

Likewise, Anne Cooper, a clinical Informatics advisor at NHS England, addressed the same conference and the CPHVA last autumn with the same message; urging school nurses and health visitors to use social media as a professional tool to help them reach out to their communities.

Like Teresa Chinn, Ms Cooper has spent several years spreading the word that digital communications can make people’s lives better.  She’s part of what the health service call The National Nursing Informatics Strategic Taskforce (NNIST). This is a group of experts and thought leaders in nursing trying to encourage healthcare workers to embrace the use of technology – including apps and social media – to develop digital healthcare leaders.

During her presentation Ms Cooper asked the audience – comprising some 500 or so mainly women – to put up their hands if they had Twitter accounts; some dozen or so people obliged, but that was all. She then went on to warn them: “Even if you don’t want to be part of this world you have to take part in it. It’s now part of society and you are also equally part of that society.”

Changing times

Ms Cooper stressed that everyone’s working methods had to change, to keep up with the times. It was the only way to look after children, teenagers and vulnerable adults:

“16-24 year olds all use social networks. Their idea of the private-public space is very different to yours. Most conversations in the past were in the same space, but there’s a new paradigm. You can now talk to anyone at any time and any location. The barriers of the geography have come down.”

She said the professional and private worlds were now in collision and everyone in the room had to have a responsible approach to digital networks such as Twitter and Facebook. Ms Cooper called this the professional and private interface: “Where’s the line between personal and professional? You have to decide. Find out where the boundaries are. What is your digital presence and digital purpose?

“There are a lot of communities in this space. Patient communities. We can support communities and citizens. We need to be more sophisticated. How can we harness these tools for citizens’ benefits? We have to learn to be professionals in this space. We have to learn digital professionalism.”

Digital professionalism

Away from the conference, and judging by the huge numbers of Facebook communities now setting up, it seems an emerging group of health and welfare professionals are indeed learning how to adapt to this online space. One example is the It’s not okay Facebook page, which was set up after the fallout of reports of child sexual exploitation in Rotherham and elsewhere. It’s essentially a place children and adults (and by default, professionals) can go to tell their stories, contact a sympathetic community and let child safeguarding professionals know what’s happening.

Another example of self-help communities is the Stop Domestic Violence Facebook group.  This has more than 42,000 mainly female members who keep each other updated on issues about violence in the home.

For professionals, these emerging digital communities are hugely important, giving a voice to often disenfranchised young or vulnerable people. A recent report on the BBC stressed that cyber bullying was on the increase despite measures introduced by the government and education authorities to clampdown on it.

Teenagers are now inextricably linked to the digital space. For Ms Cooper and Ms Chinn, it’s up to school nurses and healthcare professionals generally to understand how to be part of that. Both women are examples of champions who are the driving force behind emerging digital communities, citizen self-help groups and social media connections. Back in Tokyo and in their own strange way even the members of Benjyo Soujer are going some way to making their own and other people’s lives better.