Social media and healthcare: Navigating the new communications landscape

By John Trader
08:20 AM

There is no doubt that social media has fundamentally changed the patient to patient and patient to provider communications relationship for the healthcare industry. The advent of transparent, real time social media communications platforms that allow open and honest dialogue presents a wealth of opportunities for the industry to capitalize on positive patient sentiment and build a trusted support community to actively engage with. Many healthcare entities are also using social media to build and cultivate a team of patient evangelists who can be subsequently leveraged to spread good will and build brand equity to help maintain trust and confidence in health care services.

Is social media finally becoming a valued tool to help improve patient perceptions of an industry traditionally viewed with skepticism and disdain by many because of wasteful spending, widespread inefficiencies, unnecessary care, endless red tape, avoidable harm to patients, and a lack of transparency? How specifically are health care organizations using this new communication tool to proactively engage with patients and identify negativity to help address concerns and complaints in addition to harvesting positive sentiment?

As part of a regular podcast I host on important topics and issues in healthcare, I had the pleasure of recently speaking with Liz Scherer, a health journalist and social media strategist and Ed Bennett, Director of Web and Communications technology at the University of Maryland Medical system about this specific topic and they had some insightful feedback on constructive ways the healthcare industry is utilizing social media communications along with thoughts on:

  • How organizations can use this platform to alleviate damage to brand equity
  • How and why social media should be a part of a crisis communications plan
  • The importance of transparency
  • Examples of how social media has fomented health care brand negativity
  • How being proactive on social media can pay significant dividends

It’s no secret that a growing percentage of today’s patients are increasingly using digital tools as part of their overall health maintenance. In fact, a recent Pew Research Center study said that 1 in 3 American adults have used the web to figure out a medical issue. In another survey, 51% of patients say they’d feel more valued as a patient via digital health communications, and this survey indicates that 41% of people said social media would affect their choice of healthcare provider. Despite these compelling stats (and many others) about the value of participating in social media what’s surprising is that only 26% of all hospitals in the U.S. participate in social media.

Here is a brief synopsis of our discussion highlights, separated by category:

On how social media is changing the patient communication paradigm:

  • Social media is fueling the rise in patient advocacy by those who feel disenfranchised by the system
  • There is a distinct rise in demand from a very small percentage of patients to become part of the overall health care provision system
  • Consumer demand far outstrips supply that health care providers bring to the table in social media
  • A recent Price Waterhouse Coopers report indicates that consumers trust social media from doctors more than they trust information from hospitals, health insurers, or drug companies – indicating that clinicians still remain a central resource for patients and still remain at the center of the communications model
  • The number of doctors participating on social media is still relatively small compared to the number of practicing physicians

On what actionable steps healthcare providers can take to immediately address and rectify mistakes:

  • Once a mistake is identified, act swiftly and decisively to correct it
  • Avoid using social media channels to communicate with patients on sensitive issues, even if it is a private message
  • Address the use of social media in crisis communications – the roots of how to use social media in times of crisis should be tied into corporate social media communications plan that outlines social behavior and etiquette

On the importance of transparency in healthcare:

  • The increasing demand from patient groups to play a more meaningful role in patient/provider relationship has spawned need for more transparency
  • Social media has shifted patient empowerment from individuals to groups
  • As access to information becomes easier and more widespread, the relationship between patient and provider is changing, many providers aren’t adequately prepared to deal with the information request influx – HIPAA laws and malpractice claims are barriers to information free flow
  • Physicians and providers using social media still remains somewhat siloed – talking more amongst themselves than directly to patients

On whether hospitals are adequately prepared to address positive and negative patient social media communication:

  • Largely depends on the hospital

    • Larger hospitals usually have the staff and resources to address positive and negative comments in a timely manner
    • Smaller hospitals, which arguably make up the majority of the 5,000 + hospitals across the country, are still not quite up to speed on developing a social media action plan and a team to address it
  • While most larger hospitals use paid social media monitoring tools to actively listen to channels and instantly respond, smaller hospitals on tighter budgets can use free tools to monitor social media for positive and negative patient sentiment
  • Employee culture is a key asset for all hospitals to prepare for social media patient communication – employees need to be empowered to be eyes and ears of organization
  • Proactively engaging with patients on social media can help alleviate problems before they bubble to the surface

On examples where hospitals have suffered brand name damage due to patient complaints on social media:

Takeaway – having a plan in place on how to deal with social media communication that includes all plausible scenarios is key to timely, effective responses – the problem isn’t just going to go away.

On what hospitals can do proactively to diffuse an otherwise volatile situation:

  • Foster a corporate culture of collective accountability for brand name reputation – every employee has to have skin in the game
  • Build up the community of people you engage with – this helps to build a community of evangelists that can act on the healthcare organizations’ behalf in times of crisis or when dealing with negativity
  • Be consistent in messaging – take a measured approach to communications and maintain uniformity
  • Have clearly defined goals before you embark on a social media campaign – it helps to align goals with tactics

Many thanks to Liz and Ed for their insight on this topic!

How is your organization using social media to increase transparency, build a community, and cultivate patient evangelists?

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