There’s no denying it. Social media has forever changed the way people connect and communicate with one another. Some people hail this as a triumph, others a tragedy. But one thing is for certain- these changes aren’t going away. In fact, they are likely to become even more marked in the future. So, it makes sense that using social media in healthcare would be a subject of focused study, spirited discussion and experimentation amongst medical professionals and organizations.
The primary benefit of social media is that we have at our disposal, far greater opportunities to share information and opinions with a much larger group of people than we ever imagined. This is not only helpful in sharing knowledge, but also in professional networking and business development.
The largest problems with social media are issues associated with security risks and privacy, both of critical concern for medical professionals, who operate under the strictest of federal laws protecting the privacy of their patients’ healthcare information. Other notable concerns include time management (it is easy to lose oneself in the digital information stream); and the fact many of the things we do online tend to leave a digital trail that can follow us for a very long time, to our benefit or detriment.
Despite these potential pitfalls, the use of social media in healthcare continues to accelerate on both the patient and provider sides. Consider that nearly 60% of Americans searched online for healthcare information in 2012. On the provider side, consider these statistics: 60% of Doctors state that social media improves the quality of care they deliver to their patients and 26% of all hospitals in the US already participate in social media (with 84% using Facebook; 64% Twitter; 46% YouTube and 12% blogging).
This begs the question: Should you be using social media, also? Chances are, you already are doing so.
In a recent article for Social Media Today, Rick Delgado pointed out that social media is currently being used in healthcare in four main ways- Patient to Patient, Doctor to Doctor, Doctor to Patient and Hospital to Patient.
Patient to Patient use of social media happens largely (though not entirely) outside of the control of providers (one of the hallmarks of all social media- consumer control). It is primarily driven by patients seeking to connect with one another in places like Facebook or condition-specific forums created by patients, or facilitated by medical organizations. It is typically used for gathering information related to potential treatments, outcomes, opinions on drugs, doctors and other alternatives. Patients also benefit from increased emotional support from their peers.
If not actively engaged in facilitating patient to patient interaction, healthcare professionals can learn by listening. Although this type of engagement is generally viewed as positive, negative online comments and reviews, wherever they may emanate from, do have the potential to harm healthcare providers in instances where word-of-mouth is negative. Healthcare professionals can monitor some online discussions using simple, free tools like Google alerts which allow you to monitor specific keywords, while having online mention alerts emailed to you; or get deeper reporting at relatively low-cost from full-service reputation management companies. Both are great ways to keep current on specific topics or to keep tabs on mentions of your name or practice.
Doctor to Doctor interaction is the area where most healthcare professionals enter the waters of social media to stay current with healthcare, news, trends and legal reforms, or as part of focused study groups. This can include anything from following professional peers on platforms like Facebook, Twitter or blogs to using public and private forums. A recent study led by Brian McGowan, PhD and featured the Journal of Medical Internet research surveyed 1,695 practicing oncologists and primary care physicians.
The results from 485 respondents highlighted the professionals’ current and/or intended use of social media on a peer to peer basis. In order, 71% said that they were either a current user or likely/very likely to use restricted online communities; 44% said the same for Wikipedia/wikis; 33% YouTube; 30% podcasting; 29% Facebook; 24% blogs; 20% LinkedIn; 16% RSS feeds and 15% Twitter. The fact is, if you are using any of these tools, you are indeed a social media user. Congratulations and welcome to the club!
Doctor to Patient interaction via social media is the one that causes the most anxiety among healthcare professionals. While Delgado points out in his article that increasing communication between parties is generally helpful (I agree) for building trust and loyalty, I personally shy away from using platforms like Google Hangouts to do so. While there are far-reaching positive ramifications to delivering “telehealth” (think “virtual visits” to remote patients), I personally believe as a practical matter, that for most healthcare professionals, this is an area more fraught with risks, than not. I do believe hangouts might be a better tool for peer-to-peer group discussions.
As mentioned earlier, increasing numbers of hospitals and medical practices are engaging in Doctor to Patient and Hospital to Patient interaction using social media. This being done both through patient portals, more public-facing platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and on websites and blogs. The key considerations here in addition to privacy and security risks, are having the resources to effectively manage well-coordinated efforts.
There’s no denying that providing healthcare information to both patients and the public at large, is beneficial to all. Sharing your knowledge freely can help improve the health or comfort, or even save the life of someone you may not even know. And those who make the effort do stand to be rewarded significantly with increased credibility, trust, loyalty and business.
Should you choose to go this path, it would probably be wise to do so slowly; to focus on one platform at a time managed by professionals or someone you trust (not a task for interns); to keep information shared on platforms like Facebook and Twitter general in nature and communications with patients, secure; and, with an overall strategy in place.
Do these things and you may discover your trust in social media, and belief in it as a powerful tool for improving the healthcare industry and the lives of man, growing.
For more great insight on the subject, read this article by Dr. Marcie Stoshak-Chavez, an emergency physician who practices at the Level One Trauma Center at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Chicago.
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