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A Healthy Strategy for Health Care Communicators

Posted: December 3, 2012 at 2:15 P.M.
by Jessica Colburn

In a world where smartphones and iPads are around every corner, corporations are challenged to stay up-to-date with technological advances and trends.

The shift from relying on traditional media to incorporating social media seems daunting for many businesses. However, what if you were trying to promote a service rather than a product — and not just any service, a medical service?

“Everything is changing in our environment – from health care reform to technology to decreased funding for research to cost of care – we have to be informed, nimble and diverse,” said Sarah Newson, associate vice president for communications at MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Adam Kelley, corporate communications manager at Children’s of Alabama, reiterates the need for social media engagement within the health care system.

“We do traditional things — newsletters, website, print and electronic media — but, increasingly, we turn to social media,” Kelley said. “When I was little, we just had the Yellow Pages — now, it’s seemingly infinite.”

Dana Lewis, digital media and eHealth strategist and team leader at Swedish (a nonprofit health system serving the greater Seattle area), affirms that, although there is an evident increase in use of social media, traditional media is here to stay.

“I think health care systems are definitely evolving and engaging more in digital media, but there’s also still a need for traditional media and materials,” Lewis said. “The great thing is, organizations are being smarter about selecting channels and materials to reach different audiences.”

Lewis provided an example of how organizations can use social media to educate patients and reach out to audiences without access to services via traditional channels.

“We used Instagram, Twitter and live-streaming technology to educate the community about cochlear implants as an option for individuals with hearing loss,” Lewis said. “Using these text and image-based tools were perfect for our audience, the majority of whom had some degree of hearing loss.”

The challenge of incorporating social media into health care communications
Like any PR student or pro knows, it is important to have a plan with any communication endeavor. Kelley advises to continue this traditional approach in new media.

“We try to plan and evaluate,” Kelley said. “We follow the RPIE (Research, Plan, Implement, Evaluate) model. So often people just want to implement — especially partner organizations. We try to, if anything, be faithful to RPIE. We want to work hard, but we want to work smart.”

It is also important to remember the value of social media, as well as the challenges it may present when planning a business’ social media strategy.

“For us, transparency and authenticity are two crucial strategies to which we’ve always been dedicated,” Newson said. “Take now – the Web and social media have completely opened up the communications environment. Patients, friends, employees, anyone can speak publicly and openly about who we are, whether positive or negative.”

Lewis agreed that transparency and authenticity are “ongoing challenge[s] for all health care organizations, because so many patients are frustrated about the state of health care, and the industry itself is changing rapidly. It’s a great time to watch and see how different organizations step up to the plate and communicate as the industry itself evolves.”

In addition to the challenge of staying transparent online, health care communicators find the process of keeping their health care providers’ services in the minds of their audiences a test, as well.

“Cancer is a difficult product to ‘sell’ — It’s not like a soda that 1) you enjoy, 2) is inexpensive and 3) you could seek out every day,” Newson said. “For us, continuing education, thought leadership and storytelling are important ways we try to connect with our communities.”

Lewis noted that “health is actually a 24/7/365 endeavor, rather than only when you need to visit a hospital, clinic or health care facility. So ideally, we create channels and ways for people to engage with us (social media is a great example) even when they don’t ‘need us’ so we remain top of mind.”

A PR service tool
“We tell MD Anderson stories in many ways, but particularly through the eyes of our patients and their caregivers, who are truly the heroes,” Newson said.

“We look at everything we do as taking some sort of stress off the caregiver,” Kelley said. “They’re fulfilling the mission. We’re telling their stories.”

Social media can be used to tell the stories of those making the biggest difference in the patients’ lives, as well as a service tool to help caregivers throughout their journeys.

“Serving patients is really at the root of everything we do, online or off,” Lewis said. “This is true whether I’m responding to a complaint on Facebook, receiving a compliment on behalf of staff on Twitter, or connecting our providers with patients who have questions on the blog.”

Health care communicators must stay adaptive and be lifelong learners to ensure they are using every PR tool available in the best way possible.

“We have the lives of patients in our hands,” Newson said. “It makes what we do and how we talk about it so important and so challenging.”

Kelley said, “You may not need us, but you want us to be strong and healthy if you do.”

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