Published in HealthInvestor UK 22 February 2017
AIHO chief executive Fiona Booth reflects on what the Twitter activity of MPs says about the future of healthcare policy.
Over the last 10 years, social media has completely changed the political and media landscape. Both MPs and journalists have flocked to Twitter, with respectively87% and75% of them active on the platform. Social media no longer simply reflects the news – it regularly shapes it.
In light of the way much public debate takes place online as well as offline these days, the end of 2016 saw the Association of Independent Healthcare Organisations (AIHO) launching our Twitter account @aiho_uk. As a trade body, we must be able to represent our members on both fronts. And, with close to 20,000 tweets about healthcare posted by parliamentarians in the last six months of 2016, we felt it was time independent hospitals played a more proactive role in the online policy debate and conversation.
To prepare for our social media engagement, we decided to first of all take a step back and explore the topics that seem to be pushing MPs’ buttons. We also wanted to get a sense of the online discussion on the independent healthcare sector – what themes have attracted attention, why and by whom?
Working with our public affairs and communications agency, WA Health, we took a look at MPs’ tweets between August 2016 to February 2017 on the independent sector. In general, the hot topics include ‘privatisation’ and profit-making in the NHS, as well as the prospect of selling off the NHS for a US trade deal (following Trump’s inauguration). Interestingly, the most widely shared tweets by MPs on the topic presented polarising views on the independent sector. Conservative MP Michael Fabricant tweeted in August that “only 6% of the NHS is private and 4% was initiated under the last Labour government”. Conversely, former shadow health secretary Diane Abbott shared that STPs would offer great opportunities to the private sector, adding that the “Tories are selling off our NHS #secretNHSplan.”
Interest in the sector also spikes and yields considerably depending on the news headlines, indicating the sector is not permanently on MPs’ radars. Tweets are also overwhelmingly written by Labour MPs, at 73.6%. Conservatives only comprise 15.5% of the tweets on the topic. This information is useful for considering how we as the trade association target our messages online.
We also wanted to understand what other health-related issues are driving MPs and what they are vocalising online. We listed a whole range of possible topics to compare against each other, to see which ones came out on top. The analysis spans mid-June to early December, so the annual winter crisis and ensuing debate over the sufficiency of NHS funding does not cloud the results.
The results were enlightening, although not wholly unexpected.
The most commonly discussed issues among MPs on Twitter were:
- Mental health (27.6%)
- Hospitals (24.6%)
- Cancer (15.7%)
- Social care (13.4%)
- Dementia (6.3%)
- STPs (4.3%)
- Diabetes (3.1%)
- Waiting times/lists (2.5%)
- Other (2.5%)
Mental health campaigners should congratulate themselves – their work seems to have certainly reaped the rewards in gaining solid traction with MPs, and shows social media certainly can help influence the healthcare agenda.
While cancer, dementia and diabetes are all areas receiving significant funding and are areas of focus for policy makers, cancer is clearly forefront in the mind of politicians. While this presumably means there is a political spotlight on cancer services – which should be welcome news to patients and their families – our analysis shows there are also campaigning opportunities for those working across dementia and diabetes, and indeed other clinical areas, to raise greater awareness and support amongst MPs.
The data shows MPs have a clear concern about pressures on hospitals, the social care system and correspondingly the funding crisis facing the NHS. No doubt if this data spanned the last few weeks, the percentage of hospital mentions would certainly be higher.
Evidence-based communication is crucial in getting cut-through on this, particularly with the government’s focus on securing returns on investment. The high profile of mental health on Twitter compared with other issues is testament to what can be achieved through focused communications and campaigning.
Understanding these trends not only helps healthcare providers engage with MPs on health matters, but also highlights where opportunities lie for greater education and awareness raising. Although there are clearly conflicting messages about the independent sector playing out online, there are also opportunities to showcase what we do, especially on the health topics of most concern to MPs. Social media will continue to play an influential role in shaping and responding to public debate, and we will ensure the independent sector is playing its part in the wider conversation.