Dealing with abuse on social media

The fastest growing group of tweeters in the world are those in the 55 - 64 age bracket, and the 45-54 for Facebook. Why is this relevant to GP Practices? Because these statistics from Callbox-Au  prove that social media platforms are no longer just reserved for Students planning parties and posting ‘Gap Yah’ photos.

With 1.61 Billion people using social media sites (eMarketer, 2013) and 15 million tweeters in the UK, they are an important tool to any practice and a time saver in a world where a sentence posted at the click of one button can reach wider than any poster or pamphlet ever could – no matter how cleverly designed or placed.

While social media can be a brilliant tool to connect with your Practice’s community and notify patients about any campaigns, changes within the practice or to pass on topical tips, communicating with patients might not always be a one way street.

They say that unhappy customers tell ten people, while happy customers tell nobody, this definitely rings true for social media– except their criticism is out there for more than just 10 close friends to digest.  So how should you prevent and handle negativity on social media if your practice became the target of abuse online?

Have a purpose

Make sure that patients are aware of the practice page’s purpose before they start inundating you with unnecessary requests - You don’t want to be chased up with complaints about queries going unanswered. Social media is brilliant for snippets of advice, for example: Tips on preventing flu in the winter or dehydration in the summer. However, what it isn’t good for is patients organising appointments or asking advice about complex medical issues. A disclaimer in facebook’s ‘about’ section or in your Twitter bio should help patients understand what to expect from your page.

Less haste, more speed

A survey on how quickly people using social media expect a response to complaints (Edison Research, 2012) found that a quarter would like to hear back on the same day and 9% of those surveyed expected a reply within a speedy five minutes. In short, people believe that there is someone constantly monitoring the account/page and ready with a response. While this may not necessarily be true in reality and nobody would seriously expect you to answer queries and deal with issues in less time than it took to cook a hard-boiled egg, it is important to get complaints off the public forums as soon as possible. This prevents an angry ‘poster’ littering every status or tweet you post with ‘why haven’t you answered?’ comments. These quips alert other users to the original complaint, thus damaging your reputation even further.

Professionalism is key

The term ‘keyboard warrior’ might be fairly new, but it perfectly describes the phenomenon of timid people suddenly becoming aggressive or defensive as soon as they feel safe behind their computer screen. When you are interacting on the internet, especially through work, understand that you are not anonymous. Don’t write anything you wouldn’t say face to face to patients or colleagues. A good way of making sure you stay in ‘work mode’ is to only use practice sites during the working day. Answering wall posts on a Friday night after a glass of wine is unprofessional and makes it easy for patients to assume you are available 24/7.

Safeguard Your Own Privacy

Make sure staff (and yourself) keep personal profiles private. Checking your privacy settings on your own accounts can prevent patients filling your inbox with questions that should be otherwise directed to a professional profile. When those 9% that want a reply within five minutes don’t get it, you don’t want them heading towards your personal account. It will also help maintain your professional reputation; you don’t want staff to go from respected to ridiculed in seconds after a patient gets hold of rogue Christmas party photos.

Have a solid complaints procedure

If patients know they can formally complain, and that doing so will not affect the healthcare they receive and will result in a response,  they are much less likely to turn to social media or other more informal and very public outlets as a means of expressing negative feelings. Many people will often turn to these sites as a last resort when they feel their views are being ignored, so having an open complaints procedure and making patients aware it is available is vital.

While there is no doubt about the fact that conversing with patients through social media and providing them with a voice isn’t all moonlights and roses, it is a free and valuable tool that brings more pros than cons.

In a nutshell, be sensible. Interact in the same way you would in person while in the practice, prioritise both your own and patients’ privacy and don’t half-heartedly use the sites and ignore complaints. However, above all else, make sure you keep yourself updated with social media policies. These are available to FPM members on the site and being well versed in them is prime way to ensure you keep yourself out of trouble.


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