Social Media in Healthcare: a Prescription for Success

Posted by Tracy Hartman

Jul 22, 2014 3:38:00 PM

stethascope_on_computer_screen_imageAs social media became an accepted communications tool in recent years, it’s safe to say that the healthcare industry has been slower than most to adopt it, in spite of all of its intrinsic benefits. 

Why? There can be many factors, but Christina Thielst, a social media consultant and editor of a book from HIMSS entitled Applying Social Media Technologies in Healthcare Environments said the problem primarily can be attributed to media reports about security breaches and personal health information being leaked inadvertently via social media. 

Knowing that healthcare puts a lot of necessary emphasis on privacy and security, as outlined by HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), it’s no wonder the industry was a little spooked. I think most industries were rattled initially, or at least they didn’t take social media seriously at first. I can remember thinking, “Is this really going to be something more than what teenagers use to communicate with one another?” (C’mon, you know you had the same thought in social media’s nascent stage.) 

However, now the healthcare industry has embraced social media, and as Thielst pointed out in a Healthcare IT News article entitled “Social Media Taking Hold in Healthcare,” there are three main reasons why. 

  1. The most regular users of healthcare systems are, well, older, and they are finally getting used to social media tools. Most have gotten used to using them on a personal level, and now recognize that those same tools can be used beyond that application. 
  2. Since marketing through more traditional outlets (such as newspaper advertising) has become more expensive and challenging with reduced audiences, hospital administrators have realized the advantages to social media.
  3. Media stories about social media have gotten better. And, organizations like the American College of Healthcare Executives and HIMSS have been putting a lot of effort into teaching healthcare executives the value of social media and how to use it.

One key area that social media has proved to be an invaluable tool in healthcare is in the patient-provider relationship.

Healthcare providers are seeing the advantages to a blog with helpful content that helps patients inform themselves and make decisions about their care. Or, using Facebook and YouTube to answer questions from the community or conduct live chats with experts from the healthcare organization, or to post a video about the right way to wear a bike helmet to prevent injury if involved in a bike accident. 

The possibilities are endless and healthcare providers are now understanding how it allows them to connect with their patients in an efficient and effective way.

Sometimes, it can help in a traumatic situation in which response time is crucial.  According to a US News & World Report article, when the Boston Marathon bombing occurred: “After reading about the marathon bombings on Twitter, trauma teams in Boston last year were able to ready themselves for surgery much sooner than they would have if they'd had to wait for a traditional news report.”

Some healthcare organizations have their nurses create professional Facebook and Twitter accounts separate from their personal accounts. Once their patients friend and/or follow them, the connection has been made. It allows them to have a personal connection with their patients beyond their stay or office visit, and a level of trust and respect is a natural result. 

In some cases, social media in healthcare in this sense can literally save a life. Ruthi Moore, director of nursing at the Navy-Marine Corp Relief Society, tells of an instance in that same US News article when one of her nurses saw a post from a veteran who was thanking everyone, and she became suspicious he was going to be doing something he shouldn’t. Instead of the standard phone call, she went right to his home explaining that she was in the neighborhood anyway. Her hunch proved right as when she got there, the man had a gun in his hand.  She was able to get him to give her the gun and remove the bullets.  Had she not found his post on Facebook, he might have committed suicide.

Though not always this dramatic, the benefits of social media are numerous in healthcare, and I think we have only seen the tip of the iceberg in terms of how it will continue to enhance the patient-provider connection. And, since providers are so time-strapped when you are in their presence, social media will allow them to extend their caring demeanor beyond the office visit or hospital stay. A true prescription for success.  

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Topics: Healthcare, Social Media