Health Systems Need a Good Dose of Social Media

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Posted At: November 1, 2010 11:20 AM
by Katie Breaseale

Hospitals can be viewed as stark, uninviting places full of sadness and despair. Some hospitals, however, are taking steps to alter this image and to brand themselves as welcoming places of healing and learning.

Public relations professionals in the health care industry realize the impact of social media, and many communication departments use the expansive networks of Facebook and Twitter in building an online presence. By posting patient testimonials on Facebook or sharing health tips on Twitter, hospitals reach out to patients in a way that was previously never possible.

The Children’s Hospital of Alabama corporate communications department developed a social media strategy targeting both internal and external audiences. By maintaining a strong presence through social media, the hospital shares health tips and hospital statistics daily, getting the community involved with its mission.

“I think it is vital to a health care organization’s success to engage both their employees and the public in effective messaging,” said Rachel Olis, corporate communications coordinator for Children’s. “Corporate communications departments can be the link between reputation, credibility and effectiveness. In today’s changing health care world, it is vital that the correct message gets to the correct audience — a communications team is the piece of the puzzle that can get that done.”

A key messaging tool for Children’s Hospital of Alabama is past patient testimonials.

“One reason a strong communications department is important for a hospital is because there are amazing stories to tell to both internal and external audiences,” said Justin Cohen, Children’s Hospital employee communications director. “We have a website, childofchildrens.org, where former patients can share their stories. That can assist with fundraising, employee morale and raising awareness.”

Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, Mich. offers an extreme example of how hospitals use social media. The hospital made history on Feb. 9, 2009, by live-tweeting from the operating room. Doctors and medical students followed the surgery to learn the procedure and the general public followed the surgery out of curiosity.

According to a Feb. 17, 2009, CNN.com article, Christopher Parks, co-founder of changehealthcare.com, believes live-tweeting is a move in the right direction for the health care field.

“Doing this removes a real communication barrier,” Parks said. “It helps make something scary much more comprehendable [sic]. It brings us closer together and makes us more engaged.”

In a 2009 interview, Mayo Clinic Social Media Manager Lee Aase said, “for more than 100 years, the most important factor responsible for patient preference for Mayo Clinic has been word of mouth; satisfied patients telling their friends and neighbors about their experiences.”

“We’ve had strong data on that point, and that news media stories and physician recommendations are the second and third most significant reasons for Mayo Clinic preference,” Aase said in the interview. “So in our case it wasn’t a ‘prove the value in advance’ situation. We emphasized that social media are just the way word of mouth happens in the 21st century.”

Arik Hanson, principal of ACH Communications and a proponent of Twitter, said some health systems don’t use the medium to its fullest potential.

“I think most hospitals are missing the boat and are not being unique,” Hanson said. “Instead of focusing on patients, they are focusing on themselves and not using Twitter as a customer service channel. The secret sauce is not that hard to figure out.”

While hospitals like Children’s Hospital of Alabama, Mayo Clinic and Henry Ford found the special ingredient needed for a strong Twitter presence, others may take Hanson’s advice and rethink their strategy. Twitter isn’t just for promotions; it’s a tool that facilitates discussions and develops long-term relationships.

By building these relationships, the health care field holds the potential to transform people’s preconceived images of hospitals from cold and sterile to caring, warm and healing.

Where else might PR professionals use social media outlets to increase image and consumer outreach?

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