An innovative breast cancer screening service’s use of social media has been credited with helping buck the national trend of declining attendance rates.

The North Midlands Breast Screening Service has been recognised nationally for its use of digital engagement to reverse the trend of falling screening attendances.

Latest figures show that for 2018/19 the service sent out 34,954 screening invites to eligible women across North Staffordshire, Stoke-on-Trent, Stone and Stafford and 26, 214 attended – repeating the 75 per cent figure achieved in 2017/18.

The figure is significantly higher than the national average of 70.5 per cent and has been partly credited with the service’s use of social media to engage with difficult-to-reach groups.

Gina Newman, health improvement practitioner for the North Midlands Breast Screening Service based at UHNM, said: “To be at 75 per cent for two years running is amazing when compared with the national average.

“The statistics show that if a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer at the screening stage despite having no symptoms then the 15-year survival rate is 85.2 per cent.

“Getting more women to attend screening saves lives.”

One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer at some point in their life and although the survival rate has doubled in the last 40 years, the attendance rate for women presenting for routine screening has dropped consistently over the last decade.

The North Midlands Breast Screening Service set up a Facebook page in 2014 and NHS Digital recently ranked the breast screening service at number 11 up from 58 in the UK.

The NHS Breast Screening Programme invites all women aged between 50 and 70 for check-ups every three years and Gina Newman said they chose Facebook because it is the most widely used social media platform by women eligible for screening.

She said: “I wanted to look at new ways we could communicate with the local community. There was an element of sisterhood behind it. Social media was an untapped resource.

“North Midlands Breast Screening Service Facebook page has gone from strength to strength, resulting in an overall increase in uptake. The community aspect of the group is very important and our page has the largest following for a breast screening service in the UK.

"It's great to see the members supporting one another and sharing the page. By establishing a positive conversation we can empower women to make an informed choice and break down a number of myths around breast screening.

“There has also been strong, positive feedback from the GP practices, who have thanked us for helping them to raise awareness of screening and increase uptake."

Newman said the Facebook page grew in popularity after they engaged with Marc Schmid, managing director of Preston-based Redmoor Health, which specialises in applying tech digital solutions on the frontline of health and social care.

On the Facebook page, women who have attended their screening appointment can recommend the service and post reviews which encourage other women to attend. This positive peer-to-peer support has resulted in traditionally harder-to-reach women engaging with the service and subsequently attending their appointments.

“In a matter of weeks we went from having 200 followers to over 1,000 and our approach became more structured,” she said. “We noticed that GP surgeries within Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire also had GP Facebook pages.

“By working in collaboration with Redmoor Health, we are now able to work with the affiliated GP Facebook pages and highlight when a GP practice is due to be screened, promote breast awareness campaigns and keep the GP pages up to date with relevant information.”

Newman said the North Midlands Breast Screening Service wouldn’t be resting on its laurels as it looks to build on its success.

“We’re going to be using a chatbot to engage with more people out-of-hours,” she said. “Artificial intelligence will be able to give automated responses when people try to engage, for example at 8pm on a Friday or Saturday night. Social media habits change and we have to be agile and change with them.

“Although Facebook may not be the first thing that springs to mind for most people when thinking about how to improve their health, anything that increases uptake for vital NHS services like the breast screening service – and ultimately saves lives – can only be a good thing in my book.”

Schmid said: “Social media is a fantastic tool for health professionals to engage with patients.

“Gina and the team at North Midlands Breast Screening Service have demonstrated that through the clever use of Facebook they’ve been able to get more women to present for potentially life-saving screenings.”