Using Facebook to improve people’s health

29 Oct 2018


As a Health Practitioner, Gina Newman has been involved in the NHS Widening Digital Participation Pathfinder in Stoke, using Facebook to encourage greater uptake of breast cancer screening appointments.

In 2016 a report by NHS Digital concluded that the proportion of eligible women taking up routine breast screening invitations in the UK fell to its lowest rate in 10 years, with the largest decline being first timers.

Women not engaging with the service or attending screening appointments is a problem at both a local and national level.

Reflecting on how I myself access relevant local information, I began to wonder whether a digital awareness approach would be effective. I wanted to explore innovative engagement methods to complement the traditional awareness methods of advertising in local newspapers or community magazines.

On completing my research into what demographics access social media, I discovered that Facebook is the most widely used social media platform used by the ladies who are eligible for screening. As the fastest growing age group of Facebook users is over 50s we concluded that we should trial using Facebook to inform and engage with this historically challenging cohort of service users. In view of the evidence, we sought to tap into using Facebook as an additional platform to communicate with our service users on breast screening information such as

  • screening dates for GP practices,
  • discussing breast screening eligibility
  • accessing the service
  • and alleviating concerns or barriers to the service by having conversations with the women prior to their breast screening appointment.

The added benefits were that women could contact us at a time convenient to them to request extra information, such as dates they are due to be screened.

I began by emailing every screening unit in the UK, to enquire if they used social media to raise awareness of the Breast Screening programme within their targeted communities and GP practices. Only one screening service emailed to say that they were potentially adopting this engagement method and they invited me to be part of the Word of Mouth Mammography E–Network (WoMMEN) at Salford University, Greater Manchester. This project inspired me to create a Facebook page for the Breast Screening Service.

Up until 2017, the Facebook page was gaining minimum coverage and reach within the targeted areas. However during the roll out of the new amalgamated North Midlands Breast Screening service we noticed that GP surgeries within Stoke on Trent and Staffordshire also had GP Facebook pages. By working in collaboration with Marc Schmid from Redmoor Health, we are now able to work with the affiliated GP Facebook pages and highlight when a GP practice is due to be screened, promote breast awareness campaigns and keep the GP pages up to date with relevant information, ensuring cohesion between the breast screening service and GP practice. This has resulted in strong, positive feedback from the GP practices, thanking us for all our hard work in helping them to raise awareness of local screening leading to increases in their overall uptake. By collaborating with Redmoor Health we have seen the North Midlands Facebook page go from strength to strength, ultimately resulting in an overall increase in uptake.

The page now has the largest following for a breast screening service in the UK, currently sitting at 1343 followers.

Through the use of Facebook we are able to link in with community Facebook pages in our target areas in order to raise the breast screening awareness message and promote breast screening dates for GP surgeries within the area. We are also able to advise women on which age group is selected as part of the age X trial. By establishing a positive conversation with targeted community cohorts, we can enable and empower women to make an informed choice. These posts are breaking down a number of barriers, including organisational and misrepresentation barriers and are resulting in behavioural changes towards breast screening.

On the Facebook page, women who have attended their screening appointment can recommend the service, posting positive reviews which encourages other women to attend. This positive peer-to-peer support has resulted in traditionally harder-to-reach women engaging with the service and subsequently attending their appointments.

We've identified that there are a number of misconceptions around breast screening such as whether the over 70s are entitled for breast screening and why younger women are not invited for breast screening. These are covered in Facebook posts and where questions are asked we are able to answer quickly with the correct information.

We also link in with a number of other services and can target health inclusion Facebook pages and groups which share our information and videos. These include: -Trans Staffordshire, learning disability organisations, carer organisations etc.

By using Facebook's promoting service we're also able to target specific geographical locations and age groups. This guarantees that the relevant breast screening information is seen by eligible cohorts. This can be done at very little cost, but can have maximum reach with the community.

It's been extremely heartening to see the results of this over the past months. Although Facebook may not be the first thing that springs to mind for most people when thinking about how to improve their health, anything that increases uptake for vital NHS services like the breast screening service - and ultimately saves lives - can only be a good thing in my book.

Find out more about this NHS Widening Digital Participation pathfinder at https://digital-health-lab.org/stokeontrent

Breast Screening and social media from Redmoor Health on Vimeo.