10 tips for optimal social media use

By Michelle McNickle
01:28 PM

The days of tweeting, Yelp-ing, and checking-in are here to stay, but as social media’s use expands, certain guidelines are needed to ensure its “optimal” practice in the healthcare realm.  

Christina Thielst, hospital and healthcare administrator and author of the blog Christina’s Considerations, offers 10 tips for proper use of social media in healthcare.

1. Recognize social media as new sources of feedback and opportunities. Use it to connect with various audiences, the public, patients and stakeholders, said Thielst. Most importantly, connect with your audience on the channels they’re already using. “If someone Yelps about the experience [at your organization], you need to know about it,” said Thielst. “Organizations can’t be ignoring social media. Google someone’s name, and you can learn so much about them. I think organizations need to be Googling their name as well.” Another project Thielst suggests? Creating or updating your Wikipedia page. Many hospitals have these pages, she said, whether they know about it or not. “It’s important for them to do that, and I don’t think enough of them are seeing what’s being said,” she said. “They’re risking their reputation.”

2. Avoid taking on too much, too soon. Have a strategy, said Thielst, to avoid confusion. “I have people asking all the time what they should do first about social media, and I say ‘I don’t know,’” she said.  According to Thielst, your strategy should depend on your organization and should fit with your culture and needs. “It needs to reflect a lot of things,” she said. “If you’re a small organization and don’t have a lot of people who understand social media, though, Twitter is an easy start.” Thinking about hiring a social media producer? Although he/she can be helpful, Thielst suggests everyone in the organization have some basic understanding of the foundations of social media. “What you don’t want to do is hire someone, they come on board, and there’s a layoff,” she said. “You need multiple people who can keep the content going.”

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3. Recognize and manage the risks. Establish policies and guidelines for appropriate use, said Thielst, and take the time to educate staff. “Implement safeguards for protecting privacy and confidential information,” she said. This aspect of social media is important, said Thielst, and is illustrated best in a recent blog post. “Young people are in hospitals, and they have access to private health information,” she said. “Millennials come along, and they’ve been using [social media] since they were babies—they’re comfortable sharing their lives online.” She said to beware of the disconnect between knowing what to share and what to not. As new people come into the workforce, Thielst suggests helping identify boundaries between their personal and professional life. “That’s what’s going to keep us out of trouble,” she said. “It’s engrained in them, unlike us.”

4. Recognize opportunities for improving health and outcomes, and social media's ability to contribute to longitudinal health and documentation. Using social media to track a patient’s progress is also key, said Thielst. Examples of this include Boston College, which uses a “discharge advocate,” or an avatar, to take patients through the discharge process. In addition, other social media platforms are focusing on after-care programs for recovering addicts. “If it’s 2 in the morning, and you have nowhere to go, you can log onto the site, which is always on,” she said. “You can also do virtual AA meetings, where patients check in with micro-blogging technology and a ‘tweet’ of their mood. There are a million ways this technology can be applied.”

5. Use it to enhance the patient experience. “Patients appreciate the opportunity to engage on their social networking channels to stay in touch with family and friends while they are in the hospital,” said Thielst. In fact, blocking access to social media could lead to lower HCAHPS scores. “Access to social media sites may reduce isolation and depression among hospitalized patients, “ Thielst added. 

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6. Recognize social media as an opportunity to improve experiences and quality. Use it to demonstrate a sincere interest in improving patient experiences and quality, said Thielst. “Monitor conversations and engage with those who are posting reviews of their experience with your facility—good and bad,” she said. Keep in mind the importance of these reviews, and the impact a response can have. “Your responses will be seen by others researching your facility,” said Thielst

7. Integrate social media into day-to-day work processes to keep it "real." Don’t have one person charged with pushing out “scripted messages,” said Thielst. “There has to be some amount of realness to your social media engagement, and that’s what it’s about,” she said. Personally, Thielst will share a link to a story she deems interesting, and in addition, will ask a question or add her own two cents – "something to make it where it’s not like generating tweets for the sake of tweeting,” she said. “There has to be some bidirectional communication, and sometimes I don’t see that.”

[See also: Social media plays a role in patient's choice of hospital.]

8. Use social media to provide information and content. “Reach out to ePatients by providing information and content consumers can use to participate more actively in their care,” said Thielst. According to her, it’s important to think about branching out to newer forms of social media, such as video blogging, to reach patients on media they’re already using. “Reaching out to patients [to] provide information and content that’s directed to them helps patients make better decisions,” she said. “Especially in reform: patients need to make better decisions.”

9. Ensure appropriate privacy settings and safeguards on your sponsored social networking channels. Thielst suggests encrypting and monitoring all your social media accounts, if possible. “Approve who’s joining or leaving the community,” she said. For example, recent sites allow patients staying in hospitals for an extended period of time to remain in contact with friends and family. “[Organizations] need to make sure those sites are secure,” she said. “If they’re working with a company, my guess is they’re secure. But, if you’re going off and working with the guy down the street, you have to make sure they’re putting in those privacy and security safeguards so people who don’t belong in the community don’t get access to it.”

10. Find ways to offer appropriate social supports using social media. This last point “pulls on several things,” said Thielst. Mainly, using social media for those who are challenged when it comes to participating in traditional opportunities, or those who are struggling with behavior changes or a new diagnosis. “HealthCare Partners on the East Coast are using texting messages to remind people to use their medication,” she said. “Like sunscreen for younger people or appointments for recovering opiate addicts.” In essence, this use of social media is helping people transition through major life changes. “It’s using social media to support people who need help because they’re trying to make some behavioral change to improve their healthcare,” she said. 

Follow Michelle McNickle on Twitter, @Michelle_writes