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February 14, 2011

Making a Virtual Connection
By Lindsey Getz
For The Record
Vol. 23 No. 3 P. 14

Social media is already redefining the way consumers communicate; it only makes sense for hospitals to be on board.

There’s a serious side to social media. While some still view it as purely fun and games, the truth is that these mediums offer a wealth of business opportunities for hospitals and health networks. It’s an opportunity to reach out and engage with consumers on a new level. For healthcare organizations not already on board with social media, it’s time to consider a development strategy.

There’s no question that social media is one of the best ways to reach patients. After all, many use these mediums on a daily basis. “Healthcare in 2011 has become more consumer facing than ever, and that trend will continue,” says Jane Sarasohn-Kahn, MA, MHSA, founder of THINK-Health. “As healthcare becomes more consumer centric, providers need to understand these customers the way a Procter & Gamble or Apple do—the big question being what motivates people with respect to health behaviors? For example, how do they select a hospital, use an emergency department, select physicians, or fill prescriptions for chronic conditions?”

While obtaining patient information is a key component of social media, perhaps it is most valuable as a tool to disperse information. The Mayo Clinic, for instance, used it to disseminate information about a breakthrough finding on debilitating wrist pain by one of its orthopedic surgeons. Richard Berger, MD, PhD, who led a study of 272 patients with wrist pain, found that a common cause—a split tear of the UT ligament—that was previously difficult to detect could not only be detected with a simple physical examination but also fully repaired through an arthroscopically guided surgical procedure.

When he performed the surgery on pro baseball star Jayson Werth and then posted a video on YouTube, the buzz quickly spread. “Dr. Berger said that it typically takes about 17 years for research and discoveries to really make their way through the medical community and even at that point are just 50% applied,” says Lee Aase, director of the Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media. “And patients previously never had access to that information. Social media is changing all of that. It’s been just two years since Dr. Berger first published his findings, but he says thanks to social media—and the mainstream media that picked up the story from social media—the information is out there.”

Texas Health Resources has also taken advantage of social media’s ability to deliver information, including news about its EHR. “We have YouTube videos talking about the EHR in a very consumer-friendly way,” says Reace Alvarenga-Smith, APR, the health system’s public relations manager. “And we’ve been posting on Facebook and Twitter as well as on our blog. If anyone has questions, it’s also a forum for us to answer them.”

Texas Health Resources has also created “Texas Health Moms,” a social media forum that encompasses a blog, a Twitter feed, and a Facebook page. “It’s basically a blog from moms throughout our health system who are willing to write and cover parenting topics,” says Alvarenga-Smith. “We’ve had stepmoms, expecting moms, new moms, and experienced moms all talking about their experiences. A lot of people react to the comments, and it sparks conversation and exchange.”

Getting Started
There’s really no right or wrong way to get started with social media, but Christina Beach Thielst, FACHE, an independent contractor and author of Social Media in Healthcare, recommends starting small to avoid feeling overwhelmed.

“First of all, be aware of your options,” she advises. “Know the different types of social media and start small with maybe one or two applications. I’d also recommend signing on and creating an account with your preferred name so that you can reserve it. If you want to sign on as ‘StJoesHospital’ but somebody already has it, you can’t get it. So get your preferred domain name established and save it. From there, it’s a matter of identifying a purpose and the audience you’re trying to reach and selecting the media that best fits that. Then pilot it. As you get more familiar, you can expand on what you’re doing.”

Which social media outlets you opt to launch first may depend on the target audience. “Health consumers aren’t homogeneous,” says Sarasohn-Kahn. “Different consumer segments favor different messaging, media, and platforms. These may or may not include various social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and podcasts, among others. In addition, the mobile platform—cell phones and smartphones—is providing another useful platform over which many consumers will conduct their personal business, including health apps for both wellness and sickness.”

However, it’s safe to say that Facebook would be a wise starting point, says Aase. “With a half-billion people on Facebook, it definitely seems like a good place to have access to a lot of people,” he says. “And YouTube is now the second most popular search engine in the world, so that’s another great place. People go there to search for topics and anybody is open to seeing it—with or without an account.”

When devising an implementation strategy, consider your goals. “I would say the most important thing for any group getting involved with social media is to consider how it fits with all your existing goals as an organization and to tie it to preexisting campaigns and tools—the things you already have in place,” says Aaron Watkins, director of e-strategy and Web services for Johns Hopkins Medicine. “Social media doesn’t replace anything; it just adds to what you’re already doing.”

Who should spearhead the initiative when a healthcare organization decides to dip its toe into social media? That’s an important question hospitals and health networks need to consider.

“We’ve had the effort led by the Web team, but with that being said, it’s a highly collaborative project,” says Watkins. “In our case, the Web team is comprised of the individuals who are experts in knowing how to use these tools most effectively—essentially how to get the ball rolling—but there’s no question that overall it takes a team effort.”

At Texas Health Resources, Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer Edward W. Marx, who was already a blogger and an avid social media user, did the initial social media outreach. “When he joined our system, he believed in the value of using social media and helped open our networks to allow it,” says Alvarenga-Smith. “With his guidance and encouragement, the public relations team has taken advantage of using social media to promote engagement with our consumers.”

Privacy Concerns
No matter which department initiates or leads the social media effort, it’s important that a multidisciplinary team is consulted, especially on issues relating to privacy and security. “In my opinion, you need to have buy-in from legal, IT, public affairs, and media relations to get started with social media,” says Aase.

According to Aase, postings to the Mayo Clinic’s social media sites are handled with the same consent forms used for any other media venture in which the organization may be divulging patient information. The process includes taking all necessary steps to gain permission.

Aase says privacy concerns should not discourage organizations from getting on board with social media. “The problems that some organizations have had with privacy breaches have typically been an employee posting something on their own social media profile,” he says. “At any organization, it’s safe to say you have at least 10% of your employees already on Facebook—probably a lot more than that. So you already have all the risk involved but no reward. I believe it makes a lot more sense to provide guidelines and standards for using social media—both for business and personal use—to help prevent some of those problems and get the reward of using social media.”

Johns Hopkins has also established rules regarding the use of social media. “We’ve got formal guidelines which address HIPAA and legal concerns,” says Watkins. “Those same rules apply even for personal use just the way HIPAA rules would apply if you’re a hospital employee at a cocktail party. You can’t talk about a patient even if you’re outside of the hospital setting. And it’s the same rules in cyberspace. People need to be cognizant that others are paying attention. Even if you think you’re being secretive, it’s easy for information to get spread.”

Thielst says it simply comes down to being smart. “To be honest, paper privacy issues can be just as difficult as social media issues,” she notes. “If paper falls into the wrong hands, it can still be distributed. I recently heard about a case where a hospital had dumped patient records into a dumpster without taking an effort to conceal private information. It really comes down to making wise choices, whether it’s paper or electronic information.”

Reaching Out
In terms of social media’s reach, it’s actually longer than most realize. In fact, even low-income families and senior citizens are often still able to access communication that originates in a social media platform. Messages that are released first through social media often end up in mainstream media such as newspapers and television. For example, Berger’s wrist research became the subject of a USA Today article after it had become news in the social media stratosphere. The result was more consumers who had access to the findings.

“It’s also important to realize that many older adults have caregivers and children that are actively involved with social media and passing the information on to them,” adds Aase. “Plus, I wouldn’t underestimate who is already on it. My dad is turning 80 next year and has a Facebook account. And the women-over-50 segment is the fastest-growing demographic on Facebook. There are a lot more people on social media than you may have once thought.”

In addition, Sarasohn-Kahn says even more people are accessing health information via their phones, allowing lower-income families to be involved with social media even if they don’t own a computer. “By late 2011, most mobile phones in the U.S. will be smartphones. Smartphones enable a lot of sophisticated content and applications to run over them,” she says. “Furthermore, while African Americans and Hispanics have a lower level of Internet access via computers, relatively higher percentages of minority populations access the Internet via mobile [devices], which equalizes access between Caucasians and minorities in the U.S. So that’s an important trend; mobile is a game-changer in health, as Susannah Fox of the Pew Internet & American Life Project has said.”

While it offers an impressive package of features, not everyone may be on board with social media. “Proving the value of it can be difficult because the value is in the quality of the interactions you have,” says Watkins. “It’s not necessarily a straight return on investment. But the opportunity, especially in the medical field, is in the chance to interact with the public in ways that weren’t possible in the past.”

Those who aren’t interested are simply not the people who should be involved with the social media effort. “You cannot force a person who’s not interested in social media to do it,” says Alvarenga-Smith. “If they’re not interested, they’re not going to be successful at it. You need someone who wants to take advantage of the opportunities it presents. You need to find the innovators in your organization.”

Finding that someone who can get a social media project off the ground will become even more important as these communication platforms continue to gain acceptance as viable consumer tools. “It’s definitely not something that’s going away,” says Aase. “It’s a trend that’s defining communication of the third millennium. The ability of anyone in the world to publish information to the Web at almost no cost is something that would have been unimaginable in our not-so-distant past. I think it should be a matter of how organizations choose to adapt this and use it to their advantage—not if. It’s something that every organization should already be considering.”

— Lindsey Getz is a freelance writer based in Royersford, Pa.