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New social media techniques used to boost cancer screening rates

Hundreds of practice nurses across the country have been taught how social media can improve health thanks to the success of one of NHS Digital’s Widening Digital Participation projects.

Hundreds of practice nurses across the country have been taught how social media can improve health thanks to the success of one of NHS Digital’s Widening Digital Participation projects.

Following an initial pilot using Facebook to promote breast screening, one area saw a 12.9% increase in the take up of screening services and moved from 58th in the country for uptake to 11th. The same techniques are now being harnessed elsewhere in the country to encourage patients to go for other cancer screening tests.

Around 350 General Practice nurses and other practice staff have so far been trained in adopting technology to become Digital Health Champions, including learning how social media can help promote practice services.

The social media skills being taught were first used by the North Midlands Breast Screening Service in Stoke-on-Trent in a pathfinder project run by charity Good Things Foundation as part of the work the NHS is doing on digital inclusion.

A Facebook page was created to provide information and reduce anxiety about breast examinations. The team also posted information about screening on community groups and the Facebook Messenger service enabled women to easily make appointments and ask questions about the screening process.

Since the page was launched, attendances for first time appointments at the North Midlands Breast Screening Service increased by an average of 12.9 per cent between three-year screening cycles from 2014 to 2018. The service has also shot up the league table for uptake levels, going from 58th to 11th in the country between 2016-17 and 2017-18. Nationally, uptake of invitations for breast screening are in decline.

The project continues to develop, with the latest innovation a link-up with Lancaster University to develop an AI chatbot which would assist staff in answering queries sent via Messenger.

The learning from the Stoke-on-Trent pathfinder is now being shared through digital clinical champions training run on behalf of the Staffordshire Sustainability and Transformation Partnership digital workstream, as well as through a partnership with Redmoor Health - a national company who provide training and support to the health and care workforce to enable them to use digital technology and social media on the front line.

Bay Medical Group in Morecambe is one of the practices which has benefited – leading to one of their Facebook posts about cervical screening reaching over a million people. IT and communications officer Cath McLennan said the advice gave her the skills to post on the practice’s page with confidence: “It was absolutely amazing – now I aim for each of our posts to reach at least 1,000 people to get information to our patients. We’ve also seen a positive impact as more women have attended for screening. I really enjoy supporting health and promoting the practice through social media.”

The Widening Digital Participation (WDP) Programme aims to make digital health services and information accessible to everyone – particularly the most excluded people in society. Twenty digital inclusion pathfinders are being run across England to test new ways to help people access digital tools to improve their health, aiming to develop programmes which can be rolled out more widely.

The success of social media campaigns in raising awareness of screening – including the one in Stoke-on-Trent - has also been highlighted in a new Government report, which recommended that there should be further pilot projects.

Nicola Gill, Director of the WDP Programme, said: “NHS Digital is incredibly proud to have been able to support this innovative model that is now being adopted and used by NHS organisations across the country.

“Going to where people go every day, in this case a Facebook community group, allows us to connect and engage with people in a way that’s familiar and convenient for them. Pioneering models of health prevention and management like this are making a real difference in improving health outcomes for excluded communities.”

Helen Milner, CEO of Good Things Foundation, said: "It's brilliant to see the insights spreading from our Stoke pathfinder.

“Co-designed innovations really can change lives. At Good Things Foundation, we want everyone to benefit from digitally-enabled health - from patients to practice nurses. NHS investment in Widening Digital Participation is helping to make this happen." 

Richard Earley, UK Public Policy Manager at Facebook, said: “Facebook’s mission is to give people the power to build community, and we are thrilled that more practices around the country are building on the excellent work of Staffordshire Sustainability and Transformation Partnership by using Facebook to drive awareness of their services in the communities they support.”

Case study

North Preston Medical Centre in Preston has seen a 25% increase in women attending for cervical screening after running a Facebook campaign to boost awareness. Administration manager Danielle Longdon completed the Digital Champion training which gave her the expertise to create a series of posts, including photos and videos, as well as signposting her to useful resources.

She said: “Before the course I was a bit hesitant about what to post, but the training gave me lots of information and now I feel much more confident. We’re delighted that between January and June this year, we had 25% more women attending for cervical screening compared to the same period in 2018.”

Feedback from patients has been extremely positive, including from one woman who had put off her cervical screening test but was inspired to book after seeing the Facebook posts. Afterwards she thanked the practice team for encouraging her.

Danielle is continuing to develop the practice’s social media presence with daily posts, including supporting other health campaigns.

Watch the video case study.


Notes to editors

  1. NHS Digital’s three-year Widening Digital Participation programme (WDP) aims to help thousands of people across the UK to boost their digital health skills, as one in 10 people in England lack the confidence and skills to fully benefit from digital, and in turn from the improvements to their health. The programme is focusing on those who are socially excluded and so are most likely to suffer from health inequalities.
  2. The pathfinders are partnerships between local organisations including Clinical Commissioning Groups, local authorities and community groups in areas of high deprivation and digital exclusion. The evidence and insights gathered through these pilot projects have been developed into practical ‘How to Guides’ that can be shared with digital teams in the NHS and across Government to ensure all digital health services and tools are inclusive and accessible to everyone – particularly the most excluded.
  3. Breast cancer screening works on a rotating three-year cycle for each geographical local authority ward. More information on latest data is available in this Breast Screening Programme England, 2017-18 press release.
  4. Good Things Foundation is a social change charity that supports socially excluded people to improve their lives through digital, with digital technology and community action are at the heart of everything they do. Good Things Foundation brings together thousands of community partners - the Online Centres Network, reaching deep into communities to help people gain the support and digital skills they need to change their lives and overcome social challenges. More information about Good Things.  For more information, contact Anna Osbourne on [email protected] or 07872 992 748.
  5. Watch a video case study about Bay Medical Group’s success.
  6. The Independent Review of Adult Screening Programmes in England report made a number of recommendations including that: ‘High priority should be given to spreading the implementation of evidence-based initiatives to increase uptake’, including ‘further pilots of social media campaigns with formal evaluation and rollout if successful’.” Read the report


NHS Digital is the national information and technology partner of the health and care system.  Our team of information analysis, technology and project management experts create, deliver and manage the crucial digital systems, services, products and standards upon which health and care professionals depend.  During the 2018/19 financial year, NHS Digital published 265 statistical reports. Our vision is to harness the power of information and technology to make health and care better.

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Last edited: 29 June 2022 8:16 am