For leading hospitals, the use of social media tools and platforms has moved from giving in to the demands of the head of marketing to at least have a Facebook page, to a recognition that use of social media can add value throughout the enterprise.
This evolution beyond using social media to post nice pictures and videos of hospitals doing good things has occurred rapidly since the emergence of the first social media platforms a decade ago and holds great potential for health care institutions who want to communicate effectively with their patients.
This is my conclusion following an extensive review of the literature on social media use in North American hospitals and interviews with experts both in Canada and the U.S. who confirm this trend. This work was done on behalf of Lakeridge Health in Oshawa, Ontario as part of a review to improve patient experience at that institution.
While they acknowledge the huge potential for social media in the health care setting, leaders in health communications also recognize that social tools and channels represent just another series of communications options and should be used only as appropriate.
The only comprehensive survey of social media use by U.S. hospitals published by University of Pennsylvania researchers in 2014 showed 94.4% of the more than 3,300 hospitals polled had a Facebook account and just over half had a Twitter account. Anecdotal evidence suggests the same is true of Canadian hospitals.
“There are some really creative people out there who are finding ways to use these tools to engage patients and get their messages out,” said Christina Thielst, a Santa Barbara, California-based hospital administrator, consultant and author who has been following the use of social media by health care organizations for more than 30 years.
Ann Fuller, VP for volunteers, communications and information resources for the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, was quoted in 2013 as saying: “In Canada, in health care we’re at a point where most hospitals accept the role of social media for branding and communication, but only the lead adopters are using it for patient engagement and for clinical use.”
Since that time, she says “a lot of the perceived risks and threats of social media have lessened” yet, she adds, while “everyone agrees that social media can and should be used, and there are benefits to it, some of that stigma still exists.”
“It’s not about creating a community and trying to integrate those experts into it. It’s using social media to come up with a new platform for doing what they already do—such as engaging patients. It’s another way of bringing people together,” said Dave Bourne, a former communications director for Baycrest and the Scarborough Hospital and now director of communications for Sienna Senior Living.
But despite the most popular social media tools having been around for a decade or more, the optimal use of these tools in hospitals has yet to solidify.
“I don’t think anybody has nailed it to the point where there are best practices,” said Bourne.
Those looking for a leading Canadian hospital with regards to social media could do far worse than to study the experience of the Michael Garron Hospital in Toronto. That institution has taken an incremental approach and changed the hospital culture to slowly integrate social media into many of the hospital’s functions. Elements of that approach include
- Publication of a policy or guidelines to assist hospital staff in the appropriate use of social media
- Training of the senior management team as a group in how to use common social media tools such as Twitter.
- Ongoing education and support from the communications team to assist any staff in using social media
- Integrating social media tools into a new proactive approach to patient engagement which included aggressive timelines for dealing with patient concerns.
- Integrating social media use into a new, more responsive approach to leadership
While social media remains an important and innovative set of tools for telling stories about the good things a hospital can do, it is clear that the most innovative institutions are also using those tools to facilitate both internal and external engagement with the communities they serve.
As Isabel Jordon, a BC-based patient advocate and chair of the Rare Disease Foundation, says: “the way I would like a hospital to use social media is to reach out to people to find out what we want from them; if there are going to be changes or something new coming down the pipe—to reach out and engage us before something is going to happen.”
(P.S. Anyone interested interested in publishing a more extensive analysis of this research please feel free to get in touch)