A former Health Minister is calling for the Scottish Government to act urgently to promote the use of social media across NHS Scotland to enable more people to give feedback and help improve patients' experience.

Malcolm Chisholm, Labour MSP for Edinburgh Northern and Leith, has told The Herald the widespread use of digital communication channels, such as dedicated websites and Twitter, would revolutionise the way people interact with health services.

By overlooking social media, health board measures for patient feedback run the risk of being immediately outdated, he suggested.

"By opening up to social media and harnessing its full potential, the NHS can learn a great deal about how the services they provide are being received," he says. "Done properly, this would deliver real service development. But it will also demand fundamental culture change, and I want to see the Scottish Health Department leading the way.

"There should be guidance to support adoption of social media by clinicians, and the blocks to making it happen must be removed."

On Monday the Scottish Government launched a Charter of Patient Rights and Responsibilities for NHS Scotland that includes the right for patients to give feedback or raise concerns about the care they receive. The charter advises people to speak directly to a member of staff, contact their local health board or Citizens Advice Bureau where the new Patient Advice and Support service (PASS) will be based.

"That may work for some, but it won't be convenient for everyone," says Mr Chisholm. "There has to be a wider variety of ways people can share their experience. In the 21st century it is ludicrous to overlook the value of social media."

A survey has recently been undertaken on behalf of Patient Opinion, a moderated website that allows people to relate their experiences anonymously and connects them directly with health care providers. It shows that 30% of people who do not give feedback say they don't think anything would change as a result. A further 17% say they don't think the NHS cares about their opinion, and 11% say they fear causing trouble for staff or prejudicing their own health care.

"It is important that people can share their experiences, and trust they will be heard," says Dr Paul Hodgkin, who started Patient Opinion in 2006 when he was a Sheffield GP. "Patients often have very useful things to say that can help services to improve."

Of the postings on the Patient Opinion website, Dr Hodgkin estimates 10% lead to changes that improve the way services are delivered. And 45% of the comments the site receives are complimentary. "The NHS should not be so defensive. People value their health care extremely highly and often just want to say thanks," he says. "Others are motivated by the desire to help. Patients are experts and it is missing a trick not to hear what they have to say, when they want to say it."

The NHS in Scotland engages with patients in a number of ways, including surveys. "We have to change the attitude that the NHS works with citizens only on its own terms," says Dr Hodgkin. "Social media gives everyone a voice. The world is changing fast, and NHS Scotland has to catch up."

In a recent presentation on the use of social media in the NHS, held during Glasgow's Social Media Week, NHS Lothian's director of communications Stuart Wilson urged health care providers to embrace social media rather than fear it. "It is a great engagement tool, and we have to evolve with it," he says. "But it also poses significant challenges for the NHS."

Chief among them is a rigid IT security firewall that does not permit NHS staff to use social media at work. "If we want to reply to a comment that someone is making on Twitter, we have to use our own devices," says Mr Wilson. "If we really want to take part in the conversations others are having about us we must break down the bureaucratic barriers."

Health Secretary Alex Neil said: "We are developing our use of social media to engage with people around their health and the health care they receive." However, he said it was for NHS boards to provide guidance and support for their own staff in relation to the use of social media.