Health IT

Social media in healthcare: Who is going beyond the basics?

Hospitals have increasingly turned to social media over the past few years to connect with patients and get their messages out, a trend that’s virtually certain to grow.

To be exact, 809 hospitals have a total of 2,337 social networking sites as of the end of November, according to Ed Bennett, director of web strategy at the University of Maryland Medical Center. The vast majority of those are Facebook, Twitter and YouTube accounts. (American Medical News lauded Bennett for keeping “the closest thing there is to a comprehensive look at hospitals’ social media presence” on his blog.)

So social media in healthcare is used to further patient outreach, dispense helpful medical advice, and share their latest news. But it seems that few have moved beyond the basics. Many seem content to merely have a social media presence.

“Hospitals are still behind the times with social media and only a small percentage are actually involved,” said Alisha Kuyper, spokeswoman for Flagstaff Medical Center in Arizona. “For most of us, we have been using social media as another tool to help us connect with patients and potential patients — not really doing anything innovative.”


However, it’s certainly possible and, for some hospitals, desirable to try new things with social media and make social media an important part of their business development strategies. Here, are a few — though certainly not comprehensive — examples of innovative uses of social media in healthcare.

  • Last summer, Seattle’s Swedish Medical Center, which along with Mayo Clinic is generally regarded as among the top healthcare social media innovators among hospitals, drew attention for hosting what it called the first-ever “Sleep up.” The event, which consisted of an all-night live stream following a patient undergoing sleep disorder testing and a Twitter Q&A session with physician sleep specialists, drew 10,000 visitors.  “Our goal is to reach people with information when they need it,” said Dana Lewis, Swedish’s interactive marketing specialist. For those suffering from sleep disorders, that time was when most of the rest of us were in bed.
  • Several hospitals, including Lake Health in Northeast Ohio, broadcast emergency room wait times every few hours across their Twitter feeds. With a following of less than 500, Lake isn’t reaching a lot. But emergency room management is on the tip of every hospital’s tongue — and Lake Health couples the tweets with highway billboards that tell people where they can go to find the ER wait times.
  • Inova Health System of Falls Church, Virginia, is sponsoring an interactive fitness program called “Fitfor50″ that incorporates video, Facebook, Twitter and user stories. The campaign, which guides participants through a 50-day online fitness and wellness program, features video messages and blog entries from former Washington Redskins star Darrell Green, tips from Inova’s physicians and user-generated fitness ideas.
  • Many hospitals have live-tweeted surgeries, with Detroit’s Henry Ford Hospital in February 2009 being among the first. For hospitals, live tweeting advertises their doctors’ expertise in performing the particular operation. For patients preparing for the same type of surgery, following the tweets helps demystify the process and ideally reduces anxiety about upcoming operations.
  • Though it’s not limited to hospitals, weekly healthcare social media chats on Twitter attract hospital marketers and plenty of others looking to share best social media practices and seek advice. Lewis, of Swedish Medical Center, started the chats about two years ago — and landed her job as a result. The chats start at 9 p.m. Eastern on Sundays, and participants mark all tweets with the #hcsm hashtag. “Believe it or not, the tweets fly fast as snowflakes in a blizzard, the conversation is ALWAYS rich and engaging, and the content is always thought-provoking and stimulative,” wrote Patricia F. Anderson, emerging technologies librarian for the University of Michigan Health Sciences Libraries.
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