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.