There's a widespread irony surrounding the phenomenon known as "social media."
It's hard to imagine someone who doesn't know, in general terms, what it is, but it's safe to say that many, perhaps most, people still don't know all that social media consists of, or how best to use it for their business.
Perhaps nowhere is this more true than in the healthcare sector. Blogs abound, movers and shakers chat on Twitter, and providers are increasingly opening lines of communication with their patients via Facebook or their own, dedicated patient portals.
And yet most observers would agree that healthcare still has a ways to go before it can be considered social media-savvy.
As Christina Thielst, a social media consultant and the editor of a new HIMSS book, Applying Social Media Technologies in Healthcare Environments, recently described it, healthcare administrators have known about social media for quite some time. The problem, she said, is that in the early days they learned about it primarily through general media reports, and many of those focused on events such as security breaches or other inadvertent releases of personal health information. Consequently, they got scared off.
The good news, however, is that things are turning around.
"There's certainly been a lot of progress," she said, "but more needs to be done if healthcare stakeholders are going to truly leverage social media tools."
In her view, there are three main reasons for the growth in social media in healthcare. First, older people, who are the largest and most regular group of users of healthcare systems, are getting used to social media tools. They learned to use them as a way to keep up with family, and now they're connecting with their friends.
"Society, in general, has recognized that social media is more than just a young person's toy," Thielst said.
Next, hospital administrators have realized that there are marketing advantages to social media, as marketing through newspapers has gotten significantly more expensive at the same time as audiences have shrunk.
Finally, the media stories, once predominantly negative, are finally getting better. Moreover, groups like the American College of Healthcare Executives and HIMSS are working hard to instruct healthcare executives both in the value of social media and how best to use it.
Those educational goals lie at the root of the new HIMSS book. A compilation of numerous perspectives, the book includes chapters written by a range of healthcare stakeholders, including caregivers, administrators, marketers, patients, lawyers, clinicians and healthcare information specialists.
One of the contributors, who writes from the patient perspective, is Clarissa Schilstra. Now a student at Duke University, Schilstra spent many of her childhood and teen years battling two bouts leukemia, and according to her "the experience would have been completely different" had she and her family not been able to use social media tools.
One key tool, she said, was the care page her parents were able to set up and use to keep friends and family apprised of their daughter's progress.
Now a pre-med student, Schilstra uses her own web site (www.teen-cancer.com) to provide accounts of her experience and resources for other teens who may be struggling with similar conditions.
Another chapter in the book looks at social media in healthcare from the other end of the patient-provider relationship. Written by Craig Kartchner, senior director of marketing for Intermountain Healthcare, the chapter recounts a number of social media programs the Utah-based provider has launched in recent years.
As Intermountain sees it, Kartchner said, "the more meaningful, actionable information members of our community have, the better equipped they are to make intelligent decisions about their care. Social media are effective for getting this kind of information to patients and interacting with them on a personal level – in fact, social media were made for exactly that."
Among the social media uses Kartchner described were "a blog network rich with content," the use of Facebook and YouTube channels to answer questions from the public, and "regular live chats with experts from throughout our organization."
According to Christina Thielst, some of the other case studies in the book include a discussion of clinics in Oregon and northern California that are combining social platforms with new Patient Centered Medical Homes to facilitate access to care for patients in hard-to-reach places, and a program launched by Boston-based Partners Healthcare that has used Facebook to facilitate care for teenage patients.
Thielst pointed out that it's important for healthcare stakeholders to distinguish between social media brands and the underlying technology. Twitter, for example, is a micro-blog, while Facebook is a social network.
The distinction is important, she said, because while the brands may come and go, the underlying technology is here to stay and can be used in a number of different ways.
"The key," she said, "is for healthcare organizations to figure out the right tool for the right purpose for the right audience."