'Silver surfers' should be listened to

Image caption Older people are increasingly 'web-savvy'

As patients' interaction with the health service increasingly moves online, it is easy to assume that the voices of the elderly will be lost along the way.

But in this week's Scrubbing Up, Dr Paul Hodgkin of the feedback site Patient Opinion, says social media channels are not just for the young.

The stories that elderly people tell us have huge power. They are sad, funny, intimate, tragic, overwhelming and inspirational.

One recent posting we received said: "I am an elderly lady and it seems impossible for me to get the help I need. No one seems to know who I should speak to for transport arrangements. It is very frustrating and a poor service. I hope that this posting will change the system that is used at present."

Patients like this are using web to communicate with the NHS and our evidence is not just anecdotal.

We have seen that even more elderly patients are sharing stories with us than we thought. In fact, older people in social housing and people from poorer communities are the more likely to post their story online than others.

Although these groups are less likely to be online compared to other population groups, when they do use the web they are keen to engage and search for information on NHS care.

Of course there is still some truth in the stereotypes of young and old.

Around 85% of young people are on Facebook and thankfully few need regular contact with the NHS, whereas for the old it is the other way round - 20% use social media and most have at least one long term condition.

'Unstoppable force'

There is however, one stereotype that needs to be challenged.

While the media continuously portrays older people as being the helpless victims of neglect, it turns out that they are using platforms like ours to have their say and improve services.

I also saw this as a GP where I found that the elderly are as keen to be is involved in their care as any other age group.

As we get older, health becomes more important and older patients are keen to not only use the web to get information but, perhaps even more than younger groups, they want to be able to give something back by sharing their experiences.

We have an increasingly web-savvy ageing population who use the health service regularly and have a strong interest in seeing it improve.

Older people are the fastest rising group of online users and with the life experience and the right tools they will increasingly become an unstoppable force for change.

As online feedback expands to cover even more public services, like adult social care, the power of older people will continue to grow.

In this new digital world where everyone has a voice it is not the old that are behind the times.

A conversation

The people who are really hard to reach are the clinicians and hospital managers stuck behind their fortressed IT systems.

So what can they do to make the most of the wealth of information and experience available?

Ultimately, healthcare professionals need to realise that this online feedback must be treated as a conversation and not just a forum for patient catharsis.

Unlike the one-way communication of paper surveys and written letters, elderly patients have turned to social media because they want to enter into a meaningful dialogue with their local services.

This is not to say that staff should ignore more traditional methods of feedback, but they must approach the online space in a more open and collaborative way.

NHS staff need to to listen, but also engage with older patients.

This is not simply because they deserve to be heard but because their experiences can bring about real change for those to whom good care often means the most.

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