Public Services > Healthcare

Let's talk: Building a public sector social network

Published 29 September 2015

Dr Tony Willis, Clinical Lead for IT at Hammersmith and Fulham CCG, explains how he created a niche social network for healthcare professionals and offers advice on using technology to encourage communication and collaboration in the public sector


The rise of the web, social media and mobile working has transformed the way we communicate. Whether you're booking a dentist's appointment, inviting a friend over for dinner or ordering a new suit - everything can happen faster than ever before.

But this increase in accessibility doesn't just impact our personal lives, it affects the public and private sector too, presenting opportunities to increase efficiency and improve workflows.

Recently, this became apparent when I was tasked with increasing engagement for the SystmOne National User Group (SNUG), a group responsible for supporting users of SystmOne, a clinical system supporting the 'one patient, one record' model of healthcare.

As the number of SystmOne users had grown, the way SNUG had previously communicated was no longer fit for purpose and users were struggling to get keep track of conversations.

So here's how I tackled this challenge to increase engagement and what I learnt along the way

Centralised conversations are key

The transience of some methods of communications can present issues with storing, locating and keeping track of conversations, a challenge which is faced by almost every organisation that still relies on email for internal communication. On the scale of the NHS this point is particularly pertinent.

SNUG users, who are healthcare professionals across the NHS, had previously communicated through an email list that was receiving hundred of emails a day. Conversations were messy and fragmented and users were finding it difficult to engage.
By moving to a platform where conversations were stored centrally, we could extend conversations' lifecycle and let people track responses easily. Users can now access any conversation they want and keep track of different discussions across each thread quickly.

Make it personal

In any discussion there is a lot of value in giving each user their identity. It gives individuals a sense of belonging and allows them to let their own areas of knowledge shine through. Giving each user an individual profile also allows you to personalise their experience and incentivise participation.

Similarly to widespread social networks, we developed a way for SNUG users to customise their profile and select interests relevant to them - from Asthma to X-rays. This meant they could choose only to be updated on important discussions without being weighed down by irrelevancy.

Introducing a way for users to 'like' updates in a similar way to Facebook also allows us to keep these individuals engaged and incentivises their participation, all the while helping us keep track of what posts are engaging our audience.

Partner to fill skills gaps

Working within the healthcare sector gives us a huge advantage in that we e understand the challenges faced by professionals across the NHS and address similar issues ourselves on a daily basis. This means that when building a platform to increase engagement for health workers we understand how they communicate and what they need to share.

From a technical standpoint though, we know enough about technology to realise that enlisting experts can bring a lot to the table. By bringing in a private sector partner it's possible to learn from past experience and guarantee that things are being done the right way.

In the case of SNUG we enlisted digital agency, CSL Web , to aid in designing and developing our social network. CSL Web's team had past experience on projects like this and, to prove this, proposed building the site using SilverStripe a framework with a track record of being used in government around the world.

Build with future in mind

The nightmare scenario when working on any technology overhaul is to end up in same place in another 5 years and have to start again. In the public sector, where budgets are tight, this is particularly important. So whatever technology you choose to build or buy, you have to do it in a way that avoids obsolescence.

For SNUG this was another reason CSL Web built our social network using the open source framework. The large community contributing to the code means that it is always being improved to keep pace with the modern web. There were a range of options out there but CSL Web recommended SilverStripe based on its previous use in government.

Open source also allowed us to avoid monthly licensing fees and upfront costs, something any organisation would be grateful for, but when you're working within the tight budgets of the public sector it is elements like this that really give you peace of mind.

Turn attention into value

Once you have the attention of your audience, you can then make your calls to action more powerful. Use this to your advantage and see your new platform as a new channel to reach people with relevant information.

For us, attention is now centralised on the new SNUG site so we can now use this channel to offer tickets and information on upcoming events. Watching a record number of tickets for our conference sell through the platform was a testament to how powerful a project like this can be to boost engagement.

And this is just the beginning

SNUG is one of the first of its kind - a niche social network built for the public sector enabling communication and collaboration in a way familiar to users. There are already 700 clinicians signed up to the site, and, as this number continue to grow, it is only going to become more important.

It's worth remembering that with all projects like this, the true test is time. Early success is encouraging but it's start of the journey, not the end -- and if you continue listening to your users and improving from their feedback, you're bound to boost engagement for years to come.

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