Monday, 22 November 2010

NHS Choices: A Flagship Big Society Website?

nhs_choices_logoNHS Choices, the self described "digital gateway for the public to access NHS information and advice" has published it's annual report. The document details the website's achievements and development over the past year, as well as it's plans for the coming year. The website has undoubtedly been a success for the NHS, with over 100 million visits over twelve months, becoming firmly established as the most popular health related site in the UK.

This success has been reinforced with the assertion that the website has actually saved the NHS an estimated £44 million a year.  This is based on the reduced need for GP call-outs and appointments, due to people finding the answers they need on the site. In the current economic climate, where the NHS is expected to tighten it's belt, such estimates highlight the immense value that the Internet can provide.

However, that does exclude the 15 million people in the UK, who currently have no access to the Internet. Rather than just dismiss these as an inevitably unreachable element, the report shows how NHS Choices have looked to how they can still benefit. In the main, this has involved working with intermediaries, such as libraries and health teams, who can provide access and support. There is also the NHS Choices Mobile service, which allows access to the website's directories via text message.

With great amounts of traffic, demonstrable savings, and a reach that even extends to those without internet access, where next for NHS Choices?

The plan that the report sets out for the year ahead lists new features to be introduced. These include allowing healthcare providers to edit the details of what they offer, extending user comments to all NHS services and making the homepage customisable, so that a user can personalise what is displayed to their own needs.

To a certain extent, it's already there, but with these changes, NHS Choices will move more and more towards being almost a perfect example of a national Public Sector website within the ethos of the Big Society. Co-production, where an informed Public works in conjunction with a decentralized Public Sector to provide a highly personalised service for it's individuals.

The one thing all but missing from the report, which you'd be hard pushed to omit from any modern internet strategy, is Social Media. There's mention of improving Social Network linking, but little else. Of course, this is a report on the website itself, so you might expect few mentions of outside media and there may be a separate strategy in place, but everything is so integrated in the modern internet that it's surprising that Social Media is barely mentioned.

The NHS Choices facebook page only has about 1,000 subscribers and although the twitter profile fares better with about 10,000 followers, this is still a relatively small number for such an organisation on that platform.  Neither have prominent links on the NHS Choices website, which along with the small numbers on the respective profiles, may indicate that Social Media isn't seen as a particularly important part of the overall strategy.

This could be because the powers that be see Social Media as unnecessary.  NHS Choices is an exhaustive resource, which attracts great numbers and already has in place many elements to gain the interaction and engagement that Social Media is famous for. But just because it already does well, that doesn't mean it couldn't do better.

The benefits of Social Media have been well documented, so there's no need to go into detail on that again, but it's capacity for attaining that engagement on such a deep level, along with it's vast, sometimes viral, reach make it a tool that could bring a great deal to NHS Choices.  Not only that, but the unprecedented level of user supplied lifestyle information on such platforms as facebook, offers an opportunity for targeting specific demographics at a level that's absolutely impossible to attain elsewhere.

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