JUNE 2010 :: Cover Story

Hospitals Make Time for Social Media

Published Thursday Jun 3, 2010

By Robyn Melhuish & Calvin Bruce

You’ve got a lot on your mind. Your hospital is concerned with operating budgets, risk management and compliance, daily census, employee staffing, and community relations. But what about the online community? What about social media?

While the exact value of social media is still up for debate, there is no doubt about the impact the phenomenon is having on businesses and organizations all over the globe – and hospitals and healthcare systems are no exceptions. Hospitals are no longer limited to communicating with their communities through press releases and newsletters; they can speak directly to patients via a variety of social media channels – most notably, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and blogs. Likewise, a patient doesn’t need to express concerns to a hospital’s patient affairs department; they can vocalize their issue right on that hospital’s Facebook “wall” or send them a “tweet” on their Twitter website.

The Internet has long provided various forums for consumers to speak out about brands, but never before have so many people been listening. Facebook currently has more than 400 million users(1) and Twitter is growing at a rate of 300,000_ new users per day. Users can broadcast their opinions to a wider audience than ever.

While all this transparency may leave hospitals administrators feeling somewhat nervous, more and more hospitals are casting fears aside and actively participating in the conversations happening online. According to the Hospital Social Networking List_ (regularly updated by Ed Bennett, website manager for the University of Maryland Medical Center), 660 hospitals are currently active in social media. The most popular social network among hospitals is Twitter with 507 hospital accounts, but Facebook is close behind with 458 Pages created by hospitals. Even YouTube has 308 channels established by hospitals, and 85 hospitals currently produce blogs.

“Social media accounts are easy to set up with virtually no upfront cost,” Bennett mentioned. “Hospitals can use content that previously appeared on their main web site or in press releases or other communication formats to inform their friends, followers and fans of what’s happening of importance to the hospital and the constituencies they serve.”

Despite the perceived risks involved with participating in social media, hospitals recognize that an increasing number of patients look to the Internet for health information long before they pick up the phone to make an appointment with a physician or visit a hospital’s ER. By using social media to provide accessible and accurate information online, hospitals can establish themselves as experts and ultimately attract more patients and even enhance their recruiting efforts.

“Using social media effectively is a way to ‘prime the pump’ and draw interest in the hospital with respect to its service lines, outreach to the public in general, and career offerings for physicians and other medical staff,” Bennett explained.

Primary Uses of Social Media for Hospitals

According to a survey conducted by Greystone.net, most hospitals are using social media with the goal of improving community relations, customer service, employee engagement, and crisis management. However, only a minority report that they are seeing positive results in these areas. This may, in part, be due to the fact that just one in three hospitals participating in social media have a formal plan in place for how to achieve their goals with social media.

While many hospitals and healthcare systems are at a loss as to where to begin with social media, one New England hospital is proudly leading the way. Back in 2006, when “blogging” was still an unfamiliar term to most of the population, the President and CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), Paul Levy, started a blog called “Running a Hospital.” He decided to document his experience at the 600-bed hospital in the form of a blog “to share thoughts about hospitals, medicine and health care issues.?”

In his first year of blogging, Levy revealed the central line infection rate at BIDMC and documented the progress his staff had made in this area. By doing so, Levy told Molly Galler of the “Race Talk Blog” that he invented “transparency as management.” By publicizing the progress, his staff was compelled to work harder to achieve better results, ultimately causing at least one health system to begin referring patients to BIDMC’s ER over a competitor. The new referrals accounted for a 10% increase in patient volume.?

It’s often difficult to create such a direct correlation between social media and the bottom line, however; some cases don’t require exact metrics to confirm that the channel is working to increase overall brand awareness. Providence St. Vincent’s Hospital in Portland, Oregon serves as an excellent example. The hospital created the now famous “Pink Glove Dance?” video in an effort to spread breast cancer awareness (while promoting the “Generation Pink” gloves produced by Medline Industries, Inc.?). Since the launch of the video on YouTube last November, it has received more than 10 million views.

Of course most videos created by hospitals are not likely to go “viral,” and nor are they intended to. Hospitals and healthcare systems are primarily using social media as an educational tool. From blogging about nutrition to tweeting from operating rooms to video diaries of a patient’s journey, healthcare systems are embracing social media as an opportunity to educate the community and share new techniques with other clinicians.

Tips for Using Social Media

While it may be tempting to simply start a Twitter account and “see what happens,” a hospital is much more likely to make strides with social media if it knows what it would like to accomplish and has a plan in place for using social tools to achieve that goal. For example, Facebook and Twitter provide an excellent means of distributing content, but it is important that you know what kind of content you plan to share. If you hope to be viewed as a thought leader and industry expert, you will need to do more than regurgitate facts and links – you will need to create your own content in the form of blogs, videos, and ebooks. Your content should invite interaction and encourage sharing. Ideally, your blog post or video will offer valuable information that users will want to share with their friends.
“The key is to offer stimulating content that engages followers and viewers in ongoing communication that benefits all participants,” advised Edward McEachern, Vice President of Marketing for Jackson & Coker, which manages 12 social media accounts. “In other words, give social media users good reason to return to your sites often and join in the discussions and commentaries.”

It’s also important to determine who will be the voice of your hospital or healthcare system and carefully monitor what they are saying. The job of managing social media holds more responsibility than one might initially realize, and it is certainly not something you should assign to an intern or entry-level employee. You should also consider creating guidelines for employee participation with social media. Employees shouldn’t be forbidden from talking about their workplace online, but what they say should be carefully monitored.
Fortunately, it’s easy to monitor any online references to your hospital by setting up Google alerts or Twitter search queries. Social media operates in real-time and comments require an immediate response; so it is critical that you know what is being said. And it’s not simply negative comments that require action. Champions of your brand should be thanked and when appropriate, rewarded.

Is Social Media Here to Stay?

Hospitals and healthcare systems no longer exist solely within the bubble of the city or region in which they operate. Thanks to the explosive growth of social media, hospitals can now impact fans and followers all over the world. While having a wider audience may be intimidating, hospitals should embrace the increased exposure and take control of their online presence with a concrete social media strategy that includes creating valuable content and monitoring references to their brand online.

While many hospital administrators are hoping social media will prove to be nothing more than a passing fad, forward thinkers recognize the value of social media’s real-time, direct communication for both marketing and education. While trends in social media will certainly change (remember MySpace?), the principles of sharing and transparency encouraged by social media continue to be embraced by hundreds of millions of users across the globe. So, if social media is a fad – it certainly doesn’t appear to be “passing.”

Robyn Melhuish is Communications Manager for physician career site MDsearch.com. Calvin Bruce serves as Senior Staff Writer for Jackson & Coker and as Managing Editor of the Jackson & Coker Industry Report

Please e-mail your comments to us at: cbruce@jacksoncoker.com

1. Facebook Statistics from http://www.facebook.com/#!/press/info.php
2. Yarow, Jay. “Twitter Finally Reveals All Its Secret Stats,” Business Insider. April 14, 2010. 3. Bennett, Ed. “Hospital Social Network List,” Found in Cache. April 20, 2010.
4. Greystone.Net. “Greystone.Net Reveals Results of Research on Use of Social Media by Hospitals/Health Systems.” January 12, 2010.
5. Levy, Paul. “Running a Hospital,” Running a Hospital. August 2, 2006. 6. Galler, Molly. “Running a Hospital, Social Media Style.” Race Talk Blog, February 2, 2010. 7. Providence St. Vincent Medical Center. “Pink Glove Dance.” November 13, 2009.
8. Medline Media Room. “Providence St. Vincent Medical Center Gets ‘Down’ with Pink Gloves for Breast Cancer Awareness.” November 19, 2009.