Influencers in Health: Meaningful Engagement for Patients and Staff

Holly Salisbury, Engagement Manager in the Apollo Programme and Digital Pioneer Fellow, shares her experience of designing meaningful engagement roles in the programme.

Patients and staff have long been involved in driving and shaping transformation programmes in healthcare. In the NHS, this involvement has often taken the form of patient panels, focus groups and the voice of the patient is often represented in the role of Patient Governor. Patients who have an interest in their healthcare systems also include Trust members and volunteers who form part of a dynamic network.

As we move to a new phase in digital health, it is believed that digital solutions can support a significant number of patients in taking a more active role in their own care. We have seen this in trends such as wearables, apps and on-demand healthcare solutions. It is also reflected by the programmes of work the recent Digital Pioneer Fellowship cohorts have been undertaking. Healthcare providers have looked to other industries to improve engagement and uptake of these digital solutions, which has resulted in a focus on patients as ‘consumers’ in product development.

The term consumer in the context of healthcare is often used to describe patient demands and expectations. Whilst this can be useful in assessing patient experience in healthcare, it is often unsuitable when assessing quality of care and patient safety.

The Apollo programme

The Apollo programme is a partnership between Guys and St Thomas’ Trust (which now includes Royal Brompton and Harefield Hospitals) and Kings College Hospital Trust. It will be the most ambitious programme of clinical pathway transformation the Trusts have undertaken. The programme will deliver an electronic health record (EHR) system as well as a number of supportive technologies, replacing paper documentation, joining up patient records and making these easily accessible for our clinicians at the point of care.

The programme will primarily elevate patient and staff experience in large part by improving information access and efficiency but will also support improved quality of care. We aim to meet the expectations of our patients by introducing new patient-facing technologies such as check-in kiosks and access to patient relevant information e.g. appointments and results online.

Influencers of Healthcare

My role in the programme is to ensure that both patients and staff are involved in the right way and at the right time. This includes identifying those that have the relevant knowledge and experience, called ‘Subject Matter Experts’, and those that can effectively promote the programme, often called ‘Champions’. These terms are largely used in project management in other industries, which does little to reflect the wide-reaching role our patients and staff play in healthcare. Comparably, social media ‘Influencers’ are known for their expertise on a subject and brands frequently rely on these individuals to promote products, create trends and media presence.

In the Apollo programme, we have harnessed the term ‘influencer’ to describe the staff and patients that will be integral to the success of the programme. We have identified over 3,000 staff influencers and around 50 patient influencers dedicated to and recognised by the programme to support decisions, change management, training, readiness for go-live, promotion and communication.

As in social media, there is work to do on ensuring online influencers are diverse, bringing a range of experiences to the table and ensuring we do not create an echo chamber in a closed system of ideas. To create meaningful patient engagement and mitigate the risks associated with a lack of diversity and equality of access we have worked closely with colleagues in patient engagement and patient experience teams. We will also use learnings from studies such as Covid vaccination uptake to inform our influencer recruitment strategy.  The use of social media, as well as other digital technologies in health, can widen gaps and exclude those that do not have the relevant skills and confidence or those experiencing digital poverty. As part of the Apollo programme, we need to ensure that both patients and staff are not excluded from influencing the programme and can engage in multiple and meaningful ways.

The benefits and challenges of social media in healthcare

Social media platforms provide a space to communicate on a seemingly level playing field and those that use this technology can inform, disrupt and promote. Platforms are often given the constraints of community guidance and policies but they can often be poorly policed.

This presents challenges in healthcare such as the spread of misinformation as seen during the Covid pandemic and the use of health information as a means to sell products or promote lifestyles (in the case of Belle Gibson).

However, these platforms can create huge opportunities to engage with a wider range of patients and as well as staff. This can be seen in the case of Dr Alex George, who became famous through the TV show, Love Island. The programme has a younger audience with 43% of viewers [1] under the age of 30. Dr Alex’ focus on mental health and wellness and its impact on young people, as well as NHS staff, has elevated him to the newly created role of Youth Mental Health Ambassador.

Other successful examples of influencers tapping into health and medical care include breast cancer awareness campaigner, Lauren Mahon of Girl vs. Cancer (55k Instagram followers) and Partha Kar a Consultant in Diabetes & Endocrinologist (30.4k Twitter followers).

Dr Alex George
Laura Mahon
Partha Kar

The rise of social media has allowed health professionals, patients and the general public to become part of this wider online community. Social media has allowed people to gain insight into previously hidden parts of the healthcare system and in turn influencers have gained highly engaged audiences who seek advice and easy to digest information.  In general, the role of social media influencer is changing, becoming less focussed on lifestyle and more so on shared experience and transparency and this is a positive association we can leverage in the Apollo programme.

With concerns around data and security often voiced by patients, I hope that within the Apollo programme the use of the term ‘influencer’ will only seek to strengthen our trust between patients and staff and improve engagement in the programme.

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