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

7:30 pm by | 9 Comments

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.”

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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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Brandon Glenn

By Brandon Glenn MedCity News

Brandon Glenn is the Ohio bureau chief for MedCity News.
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9 comments
Neng Bing Doh
Neng Bing Doh

Great post, Brandon. For me, the bottom line is that patients are consumers too. The most successful advertisers know that consumer engagement is key. No surprise, that's exactly what these hospitals above have done.

Dr. Alan Glazier
Dr. Alan Glazier

Great article Brandon! Thanks! Just met with a marketing executive at a major pharma company - she stated the biggest challenge she faced was the complex she worked within. The company produces major over-the-counter pharmaceutical products you would pick up at your local drug store. By socially interacting online with key opinion leaders in mommy-blogs like blogher etc, they could greatly increase their brand, but they way they are set up each tweet and each post needs to be approved up the ladder from marketing through regulatory, through legal, making the simple act of social interaction virtually impossible. Also the FDA is starting to get involved, making it a slippery slope for them as well. As far as hospitals, I imagine the larger they are, the more they function like the pharamaceutical concerns - their works are gunked up; perhaps the more successful organizations are the ones who are more comfortable and successful in delegating this to the marketing professionals and find a way not to have to worry about the legal and regulatory issues surrounding posting online. Hospitals should engage key opinion leaders in their communities by inviting them to the hospital so that they can go home and "talk" about what's going on organically, enabling the hospitals to bypass the bottlenecks that are gunking up the works.

Chris Holland
Chris Holland

Brandon, Very interesting review. I'd be interested in anything you gathered re Senior Leadership collaborating with social media in healthcare. The cases you connected us with are great. Thanks.

Kristen Deem
Kristen Deem

Great thoughts, Brandon. As the social media specialist for a large reference laboratory, I have found that we are essentially the only medical lab using social media. However, as you state in your article, innovation has been slow. Partly due to a reluctance on an executive level to incorporate social media, as Tim pointed out, and partly due to the high regulation we have. We mostly use our social media to reach out and connect to clients and physicians, sharing information we feel they may find valuable. After getting firmly established in the social media sphere for a few years now, this is the year to level up for us, and I hope to incorporate more innovative campaigns. Looking forward to seeing what all of healthcare has in store!

Tim Pacileo
Tim Pacileo

Brandon you are touching on some of the issues/challenges here with social media. The two biggest issues I find is that 1) social media and digital media are not incorporated into the overall marketing/branding strategy of most hospitals and in most cases is approached as a separate entity which results in the disjointed marketing efforts of most healthcare providers today. 2) Most of the Hosptials think social media is for the under 30 age group when in fact the over 50 age group double in size to over 44% now actively using social media. The other interesting fact is this age group tends to look for healthcare recommendations and people with similar health issues to discuss their doctors, treatment and progress. This is a huge opportunity for most hospitals because of its cost effectiveness and able to reach their patients and prospective patients on a very individual level.

Claire
Claire

Brandon, I agree with many of your assertions here. While health care on the whole has been slower to social media tools to their full potential, there should be some promising developments to this end in 2011. For now, another example of a health care organization doing a tremendous job with social media is Emory Healthcare (home to Emory University Hospital, Emory University Hospital Midtown, etc.) in Atlanta. They actually have an overall health blog- http://advancingyourhealth.org that brings together various blogs from around the organization, the first I've seen of such blogs in health care! They use Twitter (http://www.twitter.com/emoryhealthcare) and Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/emoryhealthcare) to share the blog content as well.

Eric Brody
Eric Brody

Good article Brandon. You're right in your observation. Healthcare hasn't taken the lead, and many executives are still very leery about/cautious about the reality of their new "shared" world. But the times they are a changing. Slowly but surely… Eric Brody

Nicholas Dragon
Nicholas Dragon

Well done Brandon. I agree that hospitals around the country are moving slowly with establishing a meaningful presence in social media. I think it has a lot to do with industry restrictions such as HIPAA, but at the same time I only see a few healthcare systems that are coordinating an effort. For example, large hospital systems like Mayo and Swedish are leading the way because they use an overall HCSM strategy that involves more than one hospital. Also, they are not just sending out information just for the sake of sending information. They are actually using a 2-way communication model. If more healthcare systems implement this type of strategy in 2011 I think we will see a much better response from the communities we serve. Thoughts?

Karen Rocks
Karen Rocks

Yes! I am so glad that you posted this, Brandon, as it seems that health care is kind of stuck in social media. There have been many slow adapters, so the pace for health care is lagging than for other industries. I think 2011 should and will have more new ideas for using social media creatively. Mayo and Swedish do lead the way in new uses, but I suspect they have the support of their executives, whereas other hospitals and providers do not have that luxury. It will take time, but we'll all get there.