In recent years, the use of social media in health care has skyrocketed. From Tweets to Facebook posts, health care authorities and practitioners are increasingly turning to social media to promote awareness, encourage patient engagement, and increase the spread of accurate health messaging. And they’re doing so while remaining fully compliant with regulators.
According to the Pew Institute, the growing popularity of social media in health care can be attributed to two key factors:
- The widespread use of social media tools
- The growing desire for patients, particularly those afflicted by chronic illness, to connect with each other
Coupled with other online resources, social media now largely impacts the way people interact with information—including health-related content. And while most patients continue to prefer face-to-face interaction with their health care providers, online health resources, including social, are now an extremely important supplementary tools in their health journey.
In this post we’ll look at several key ways health care can benefit from social media. We’ll also take a look at some of the challenges related to social media in health care and offer several solutions to mitigate those risks.
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The benefits of using social media in health care
Social media offers health care organizations and practitioners many benefits. In this section we’ll look at three of the top situations where social can be especially helpful to the industry: during a crisis, to help build brand authority, and to raise awareness for a particular cause.
Benefit 1: communicating during a crisis
During a public health crisis, social media is proving particularly beneficial at helping to inform and protect thanks to the instantaneous and wide-reaching ability of the tool.
Consider, as an example, the 2016 Zika outbreak. Originating in Central and South Americas and the Caribbean, the latest outbreak of the mosquito-transmitted virus quickly gained notoriety for is particularly devastating effects on babies in utero. Untreatable and highly-transmittable, Zika presented enormous challenges to health care providers desperate to minimize its spread.
Largely unknown to health care practitioners outside of the virus’ epicenter, Zika posed several unique challenges to the industry, including:
- Building awareness and transmission prevention knowledge amongst frontline health care practitioners.
- Disseminating prevention information to civilians (including remote and rural dwellers) and at-risk travelers.
- Minimizing the spread of misinformation related to treatment, risk zones, and prevention.
To tackle these challenges, major health care authorities, such as the Center for Disease Control (CDC), turned to social media. From the initial outbreak through to their ongoing response in the months that followed, the CDC used social media to rapidly disseminate accurate health information to both the health care community and the public in general.
Initial outbreak: crisis communication
Quickly after the outbreak in early 2016 the CDC began issuing public health notices about Zika on both their Twitter and Facebook feeds—providing information on its symptoms, transmission, localization, and prevention techniques.
— CDC (@CDCgov) February 23, 2016
During this initial response phase, the focus of their efforts were two-fold: to minimize the spread of misinformation and to contain the spread of the virus itself. To the former, the CDC regularly hosted Twitter chats with Zika experts aimed at connecting the general public with accurate Zika facts related to its status, prevention and transmission. To minimize the spread of the virus, the CDC heavily posted updates advising against travel to Zika-affected areas.
— CDC (@CDCgov) February 10, 2016
Ongoing response: building awareness amongst practitioners
While not a new virus, Zika was largely unknown by many health care practitioners at the time of the 2016 epidemic. To increase understanding and prevention awareness, the CDC employed social to promote their Zika Training Resources to practitioners.
— CDC (@CDCgov) May 26, 2016
Other physician targeted awareness tactics, such as regular twitter chats with Zika experts, also helped the CDC arm frontline health care providers with critical preventative information.
— CDC (@CDCgov) September 26, 2016
Physicians, such as Texas-based OB/GYN Dr. Danielle Jones, have applauded social media for its awareness-building role during the outbreak. As Jones notes, social media helped to put Zika on her radar. As a result, she was able to decisively advise her pregnant patients against travel to Zika-active regions.
Ongoing response: raising local health awareness
During Zika’s outbreak in Puerto Rico, CDC First Responder Iban Khan employed social media to increase prevention messaging retention amongst local civilians.
“When I landed, I realized there were a lot of gaps in message retention and people understanding what was important,” Iban said. To narrow that gap, Iban and his team launched an unprecedented virus awareness campaign through Facebook Live Chat. Especially popular in Puerto Rico, Live Chat helped Iban and his team to directly communicate with the public and answer their questions.
Ongoing response: continued preventative care
By the late summer of 2016, public hysteria towards the outbreak had started to wane. Despite this, the CDC knew that the threat of Zika persisted and that avoidance of another large-scale outbreak would require continued awareness building efforts.
— CDC (@CDCgov) December 21, 2016
In response, the CDC has continued to utilize social media to frequently drive home the importance of Zika prevention practices.
— CDC (@CDCgov) January 25, 2017
Benefit 2: establish brand authority
The internet has dramatically changed how people seek their health information. While face-to-face consults with health professionals are still the first choice for patients, according to a study by the Pew Institute, patients now also actively engage with online health resources to guide their health decisions.
Further, they’re using online resources to supplement physician advice with their own research and talk with peers about doctors, medications, and more. Within this trend, social media factors as a major tool through which patients seek, converse about, and share their health findings.
For practitioners, the growing demand for trustworthy and accessible medical information presents an exciting opportunity to engage the new digitally empowered patient. Social media, given its vast global adoption and high-degree of interaction, is one of the most powerful ways to engage within this new health care landscape.
Health care providers who want to elevate their brand authority amongst patients need to go where their patients are—on social media. Several key attributes make social media particularly useful to health care brands: listening and monitoring, engagement, and content dissemination.
Monitor evolving patient interests
Social media can be especially useful to providers looking to understand their patients’ concerns. By monitoring social media, blogs, forums, review sites, and other digital sources, health care teams can better understand what patients want and need. Those insights can then be used to help create relevant content that speaks to the interests of a targeted patient segment.
Increase trust and credibility
For many patients, social media is an environment in which they feel a great sense of belonging and trust. They view participants within that sphere as their peers and confidants, and commonly seek advice from within that realm. As such, many physicians today are utilizing social as a powerful way tap into these personal networks to make their messaging more credible and motivating.
Practitioners like Boston-based Dr. Kevin Pho actively engages in Twitter to connect with patients. With close to 150,000 followers, he also uses Twitter as a powerful platform to influence health practices with his original health content.
— Kevin Pho, M.D. (@kevinmd) January 26, 2017
For other providers, Twitter chats, LinkedIn forums, and Facebook posts can also be extremely effective ways to reach patients concerned about a particular health issue.
Benefit 3: raise awareness for campaigns and programs
On the campaign front, social media can also help health care providers achieve unparalleled reach for a particular health cause or issue. As with brand awareness, these social campaigns succeed by going to where the patients are—encouraging participation within the very environment concerned patients are already active.
Organizations like Diabetes New Zealand frequently use social media to encourage and direct participation in their web-based diabetes awareness chat, #diabeteschat. The organization successfully builds awareness about its chats by tapping directly into the personal social networks of its audience on Twitter and Facebook.
— Diabetes NZ (@diabetes_nz) December 20, 2016
The challenges of using social media in health care
Challenges, of course, continue to persist in the world of social media in health care—with issues of compliance and security topping the list. With several simple precautions however, the challenges related to social media for health care providers can easily be overcome.
In the heavily regulated health care industry, remaining compliant to ethical requirements and protecting patient information is critical. For large organizations with multiple social media users, establishing best practices for social media use can help ensure the collective compliance of all users.
Guidelines towards acceptable and forbidden content, data handling, patient engagement and even tone are a few best practice examples organizations can implement to keep their team compliant.
Simple measures can successfully safeguard health care organization against security breaches. The use of social media platforms, for example, are a great way to manage a social strategy across multiple internal teams without the risk associated with disorganized efforts.
With best of class platforms, organizations can quickly lock down their social media accounts from a single secure dashboard. A single management platform can also prevent the release of non-compliant materials and provide audible records of patient conversations.
Using social media in health care opens up opportunities
In just a few short years, the health care industry has had to respond to dramatic shifts in patient expectations precipitated by an increasingly digital world. Innovative health care providers are quickly adapting by creating highly engaging and helpful experiences for patients—while also remaining fully compliant. For any health organization wanting to remain competitive, embracing this new era of patient interaction is of the utmost importance.
With social media, health care professionals can gain unprecedented opportunities to connect with patients and promote healthy living. Moving forward, health organizations are encouraged to provide the framework to keep their practitioners and employees compliant while actively engaging in this new world.
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