How Hospitals Are Leveraging Social Media

by Lisa Zamosky, iHealthBeat Contributing Reporter, iHealthBeat, Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The majority of hospitals throughout the U.S. have some kind of social media presence.

Today, at least 1,576 hospitals use social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, FourSquare and blogs, according to the Mayo Clinic Social Media Network's Health Care Social Media List, which tracks hospital social media presence by state and platform.

A recent study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research found that nearly 95% of hospitals have a Facebook page, just over half are on Twitter and nearly all hospitals (99.41%) can be found on Yelp. Large, urban, private, not-for-profit and teaching hospitals are among those most likely to use social media, the study found.

Social media platforms are used in a variety of ways:

  • To create local awareness of hospitals' clinical specialties;
  • To provide the community with information about events;
  • To disseminate important health care tips; and
  • To celebrate awards and achievements.

Tools, such as Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and others, are often used to make information about crises or emergency care available to the public, or for clinical experts to weigh in on emerging medical trends or respond to questions related to their clinical specialties.

Adopting a Social Media Strategy

Social media tools are most effective when used for the purposes of community-building, engagement and having conversations online, experts say. But most hospitals are simply using these platforms to disseminate content, according to Dan Dunlop, president of Jennings, a North Carolina-based health care marketing firm.

"It's a push strategy. They're just spewing," he said.

Melanie Peters, who heads up social media for University of California-San Diego Health Sciences says hospitals also flounder online because they fail to grasp the unique requirements of social media platforms and how they differ from traditional communications.

"The biggest part of social media businesses don't consider is the monitoring. You can't just speak at people, it's a conversation. You need to be able to respond," she said. Having staff dedicated to social media strategy and management is critical to success.

In addition to sharing information via social media to create awareness about the hospitals, clinical care, events, health care tips and crisis information, savvy hospital systems use Facebook, Twitter and other platforms to track community perceptions.

At UC-San Diego, for example, if patients are having a hard time registering for an event, if wait times in a clinic are too long, if there's trouble making a timely appointment with a specialist or parking is an issue, it's being tracked via social media and quickly addressed, Peters said.

Highly engaged health systems like the Mayo Clinic also use social media to make their clinical experts available to the community via Twitter chats, Q&A sessions on Facebook or webinars.

"What people value the most from us as Mayo Clinic is what Mayo Clinic subject experts have to say," said Lee Aase, director of the Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media.   

"So, if we have the opportunity for them to be asked questions through the platform and have that two-way conversation, it is great. A physician from Mayo Clinic isn't just another Twitter user. They've got an expert opinion, and we should showcase that," Aase said.

According to Aase, social media can also be a highly effective way of getting more out of traditional media outlets.

"If I could shoot a YouTube video and use that to pitch the story, that's going to be more effective than just picking up the phone and calling somebody or sending them an email. If I could send them a link so that they could see and hear the subject matter expert or the patient whose story we're pitching, it's like using power tools instead of hand tools," Aase said.

Perhaps most importantly, hospitals are finding social media can be highly effective when it comes to informing the community of important health issues and connecting patients to needed health services. It can also be a highly effective way of furthering a hospital system's brand without directly promoting it. 

For example, the Mayo Clinic recently participated with the national not-for-profit patient advocacy organization Fight Colorectal Cancer on its #strongarmselfie campaign to encourage people to get screened for colorectal cancer. 

"When we participated in that campaign, it wasn't about more people coming to Mayo Clinic to get their colonoscopies. It was about everybody should get one," Aase said. Still, he said, it was a good cause and allowed Mayo Clinic to "do well by doing good."

A video on UC-San Diego Health System's YouTube channel demonstrates perhaps the most powerful example of social media's utility.

A man in need of a kidney was connected through Facebook to a total stranger whose child had recently died and was able to donate a kidney that ultimately saved his life.

"In the end, the families became friends, helped each other heal and became advocates to raise awareness of the need of registered organ and tissue donors in order to save more lives," Jacqueline Carr, director of communications and media relations at UC-San Diego Health Sciences, said. "To me this is social media at its best."

Expanding Hospital Use of Social Media

Seeing the important role social media plays in advancing health and well-being, the Mayo Clinic has established the Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media.

"It is a way of helping us not just apply these tools to PR and marketing, but to use them to improve patient education, to streamline the practice and to recruit for clinical trials," Aase said. "Just as we were using them originally to do media relations better, [now we consider] how can others within the practice use these tools, not just to market our practice, but to actually make it better?"

In addition, Mayo Clinic created the Social Media Health Network, which currently has more than 100 health care organization members. The network provides access to tools, resources and guidance for organizations and individuals who want to use social media for health and health care.

"We hold a conference every year for hospitals and others in health care that want to learn from us, learn with us and share best practices," Aase said.

No Passing Fad

Social media is increasingly seen as a critical set of tools that hospitals and health systems can ill afford to neglect.

"We're all going to be in the population health business very soon," Dunlop said. Finding new ways of engaging consumers and getting them involved in their own health care will be critical to long-term success, he said.

"That makes social media and digital communication that much more important." 

Source: iHealthBeat, Tuesday, May 12, 2015

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