Social Media and Healthcare: What Your Organization Needs to Know

When Twitter debuted in 2006 or Facebook in 2004, healthcare organizations weren’t exactly scrambling to establish their presence on those channels. Of course, they had no way of knowing just how pervasive platforms like these would become. Social media is omnipresent in our lives today, with 72 percent of the public using at least some type of social media. It’s not only a major part of how we interact with others, but also how we consume news, shop and even receive healthcare.

Social media use in healthcare systems is now nearly universal in the United States. 94 percent of hospitals and health systems have a Facebook page, 51 percent have a Twitter account and 99 percent use Yelp and Foursquare, according to a study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research. But while social media allows healthcare organizations to reach out to new audiences and deepen their relationship with their existing ones, it’s not without its perils.

So if your organization is eager to double down on social media marketing, you need to first learn how to navigate the many challenges of social media in healthcare. Read below for tips on how healthcare providers can capitalize on social media while minimizing its downsides.

The Advantages of Social Media in Healthcare

Social media in healthcare presents countless opportunities for patient engagement, marketing and highlighting your brand. In fact, it “can greatly enhance the image and visibility of a medical center or hospital” in the community, according to P&T, a peer-reviewed journal for managed care and hospital formulary management.

With transparency as the new norm, there’s an ever-increasing amount of information on businesses available online. And people are taking advantage of that data — not just when deciding which restaurant to go to or what shoes to buy, but also where to receive healthcare. One study cited in P&T found that 57 percent of consumers said that a hospital’s social media presence would strongly influence their choice regarding where to go for services.

What’s more, these consumers said a hospital’s use of social media alone suggested it was more clinically advanced than the competition. The same study showed 81 percent of respondents viewing a strong social media presence as an indication that a hospital offers cutting-edge technologies. A separate study revealed that 12.5 percent of healthcare organizations polled had successfully used social media to attract patients.

While leveraging social media is a mainstream tactic in running any modern business, however, doing so can pose numerous hazards — especially in healthcare.

The Challenges of Social Media in Healthcare

Social media use in healthcare settings can lead to violations under federal and state privacy laws — even if they’re unintentional. According to a Journal of the American College of Cardiology study, it “is not uncommon to hear anecdotes about members of the health care team being terminated from their occupation on the basis of misuse of social media.”

“The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which gives patients peace of mind to fully confide in their health care team without consequence, is important to remember when using social media,” the study’s authors wrote. “Many healthcare facilities and organizations have guidelines to help direct the medical community in the proper use of social media.”

Social media has also proven to be an imperfect yardstick when it comes to assessing clinical care. A 2018 Indiana University study suggested there was only a partial relationship between patient feedback aggregated from social media and traditional measures of clinical care, such as the federal government’s Hospital Compare website.

“Our results indicate that crowd-sourced ratings reflect measures of quality most easily observed, which is not all that matters in health care,” said Victoria Perez, one of the study’s researchers. “While crowd-sourced sites may provide similar information to the government’s patient experience surveys, they are not a substitute for measures of clinical quality or patient safety.”

Guidelines for Social Media and Healthcare

It’s true that social media use in healthcare can be risky — but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth the effort. There are a number of steps you can take to mitigate the risks of social media while still reaping the rewards. Here are a few important best practices to keep in mind:

Remove identifying information: Regardless of what medium of communication you use, HIPAA will still apply. Virtually all healthcare organizations are familiar enough with HIPAA privacy rules to know that they can’t just share patients’ medical records, but violations are not always as clear cut as that. Someone who works in marketing at a small physical therapy clinic, for example, might not see anything wrong with taking a picture of a smiling patient and posting it to the organization’s official social media accounts. But both photos and videos of patients fall under the category of protected health information, which “can only be included in social media posts if a patient has given their consent, in writing, to allow their PHI to be used and then only for the purpose specifically mentioned in the consent form,” according to HIPAA journal.

Don’t interact with patients: It’s not uncommon for patients to follow or add their providers on social media, particularly if they’re pleased with the outcome of their treatment. But providers who accept their request or follow them back are treading on dangerous ground. Healthcare providers “who interact with their patients on social media may be violating the patient-HCP boundary even if patients initiate the online communication,” P&T shares. No matter how innocuous an online interaction with a patient is, it’s best for providers to simply avoid it altogether by ignoring or denying any such requests.

Stay on top of permissions: A disgruntled former employee with access to your social channels can be disastrous. In recent years, there have been a number of high-profile cases where newly or soon-to-be let go employees hijacked their employer’s social media accounts. Take, for example, the time a recently-fired employee at British entertainment retailer HMV live-Tweeted about company layoffs, or when the New York Daily News Twitter account went rogue. While revoking access to social media before letting an employee go might seem like a no-brainer, these tasks do sometimes slip through the cracks — so don’t think it can’t happen to you. To avoid a fiasco like this, healthcare organizations should regularly monitor who has access to their social media accounts and which permissions they have. Any time an employee is set to leave, their privileges should be immediately revoked.

Provide some guidance: Damaging social media posts don’t always come from an organization’s official accounts — they can also come from employees’ personal accounts. Often, this is not a deliberate act. Employees might simply just not know any better. Consider creating a set of formal social media guidelines for your employees to eliminate any uncertainty. Major healthcare providers like the Mayo Clinic and Mount Sinai have put together social media handbooks for their employees, which cover topics like patient privacy, copyright violations and appropriate subject matter. When sharing guidelines like these with employees, encourage them to reach out with any questions they might have.

Take Your Social Media Strategy to the Next Level

Interested in learning more about how to limit the risks of social media at your facility? Let’s talk. Quality Reviews provides a buffer for hospitals and other healthcare organizations against social media risks, allowing them to ensure a higher level of service. With hospitals today operating on the narrowest of margins, losing even one patient over poor customer service or a bad review is too many. Fortunately, our products leverage the power of real-time feedback, allowing healthcare leaders to quickly identify and act on service recovery opportunities before they turn into negative online reviews.

For better or for worse, social media is here to stay. It’s become critical for nearly every industry, and healthcare is no exception. And while it can pose a risk, you shouldn’t let the challenges of social media in healthcare scare you away from the idea entirely. With a thoughtful approach and strict compliance, social media can become a key part of your marketing strategy.

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