When it comes to its role in healthcare, the term “social media” is a glaring misnomer. I mean, come on. So-called social media, as applied to the physician-patient relationship – to cite just one example – has little or nothing to do with the networking usually done online among friends, family and job-seekers alike.
So agreed several forward-looking experts representing pharmaceuticals, medical devices, and hospitals at a recent New York University forum about social media in healthcare. Indeed, just about everyone engaged in healthcare social media is still figuring out what works best.
No wonder. Most healthcare professionals remain reluctant to network with patients for medical care. Only about 20 percent of U.S. hospitals have a social media presence.
This hesitancy is understandable and justifiable, given prevailing legal, regulatory and ethical concerns. Questions about some of the elephants in the room – reimbursement protocols, malpractice liability, privacy and security safeguards – remain largely unanswered.
Still, the move among healthcare providers into social media is likely inevitable. The Affordable Care Act – and more specifically, Meaningful Use regulations, the Medicare Shared Savings Program and the push toward accountable care – are driving healthcare professionals in that direction.
Here are some other telling insights from the NYU panel discussion about healthcare social media:
• “Adopt the right voice,” said Brian Mulligan, Assistant Vice President of Public Relations, North Shore-LIJ Health System. “Social media is all about what people want to hear rather than what you want to tell. Listening to what patients are saying about you is easier than ever before. We avoid being overly promotional. We try almost to be anti-PR, anti-marketing.”
• “’What’s in it for me?’ That’s the question physicians still ask about social media,” said Brian McGowan, Ph.D., columnist, author and technology consultant. “We need to research that. We need to identify the incentives that will motivate MDs to cooperate and collaborate rather than compete. But it’s learned behavior, and also a Catch-22. How can you convince a doctor – or anyone, for that matter – to do something for the first time without any case studies demonstrating ROI?”
• Healthcare is 24/7, going well beyond a stay in the hospital,” said Charlotte McKines, Global Vice President for Marketing Communications & Channel Strategy at Merck & Co., Inc. “It’s an ongoing experience, and patients and professionals have to get real-time intelligence. And while the pharma industry waits for the FDA’s guidance about social media, we should do our own recommendations.”
More broadly, physicians should follow certain guiding principles about adopting social media.
• Understand the environment. Educate yourself about current practices and ask questions of your peers.
• Drop your prejudice against social media as a potential tool for advancing medical care. Just as patients go online to find treatment advice, so, too, should you consider the value of delivering services directly to your target audience.
• Take a role in defining the future of social media in healthcare. Engage with stakeholders as well as communications experts. Only then can you truly learn exactly what you need to know.
About three years ago, physicians diagnosed Charlotte McKines with breast cancer. As global vice president at Merck & Co., Inc. – and thus probably savvier as a patient than most – Charlotte immediately went online. She clicked onto breastcancer.org and posted that she needed help.
Within an hour she had received responses from 50 people, all ready with answers to her questions. “That’s the beauty of social media for patients,” McKines said at a recent educational event in New York City. “It’s all about having an ongoing dialogue.”
Linda Bruenner, appearing in the forum at New York University’s Business Development Institute, has likewise witnessed firsthand the favorable influence of social media on patients. A vice president of web operations management for Siemens Healthcare, Linda she told how Siemens launched an online breast cancer awareness campaign called “Turn Your City Pink,” with a YouTube video featured front and center. The goal was to create a “global pink ribbon” with 10,000 participants.
As it turned out, Siemens enlisted 10,000 supporters within 14 days, with no fewer than 94 countries joining in building a “ribbon of hope.” “We had to stretch our boundaries for this initiative,” Bruenner said. “But as a result, our video – and the ribbon itself – went literally around the world.”
And yet healthcare professionals and organizations alike – particularly physicians – are doing nowhere enough to take advantage of social media for the sake of helping patients.
At least so claimed Brian McGowan, Ph.D., a columnist, author and technology consultant who is currently researching a book about how social media can help “fix” healthcare. In the most provocative presentation at the HCP Healthcare Social Communications Leadership Forum, McGowan revealed research he has conducted showing, for example, that physicians deploy social media much less frequently for medical practice than previous reports have suggested.
Even though more than 50 percent of physicians say they believe social media can improve the quality of care, McGowan said, only 4 percent turn to Facebook for professional purposes, and only 2 percent to Twitter. Moreover, 26 percent of physicians he surveyed said they will “never” use Facebook in medical practice, with 33 percent saying the same about Twitter and 22 percent about blogs.
“I apply to social media the same definition we apply to electronic health records,” McGowan said. “Do we see meaningful use? Does social media, in fact, enhance the practice of medicine? Does it, in fact, promote public health – the learning and sharing of information and knowledge? My hypothesis is that not only can social media benefit patients, it can also improve medical practice.”
Consider this case in point. A few years ago, a patient with a health problem went to the emergency room at North Shore-LIJ Health System and waited for service. And waited. And finally tweeted about waiting. And within minutes, a staffer at the hospital, assigned to monitor social media – including the twittersphere – spotted the tweet voicing the grievance and dispatched a colleague to the ER.
“Wow!” the patient said. “Your hospital is really following us!”
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