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How to Use Social Media in Healthcare: A Guide for Health Professionals

Social media and healthcare are a powerful combination. Social networks have become an important health resource, and not just for millenials. Nearly 90% of older adults have used social media to seek and share health information.

It can be hard to know how to navigate the challenges of social media in healthcare. Providers, agencies, and brands need to create engaging social content. That content also needs to be informative, timely, and accurate. At the same time, you need to follow all relevant industry rules and regulations.

In this post, we look at the many benefits of using social media in healthcare. We also provide some tips on how to keep your social channels compliant and secure.

Bonus: Get a free, customizable social media policy template to quickly and easily create guidelines for your company and employees.

Benefits of social media in healthcare

Raise awareness

Social media is a key way to raise public awareness about new, emerging, and annual health concerns.

“Health care systems must provide trusted information on immunization, flu virus, therapy, ebola, you name it.” That solid advice comes from Michael Yoder. He’s the social media consultant for Spectrum Health.

Sometimes raising awareness is as simple as reminding followers about common sense health practices or addressing common healthy living concerns.

View this post on Instagram

Exercise is important for a healthy body and mind, but if you're feeling under the weather, you may wonder what's OK to tackle or if you should hang up your sneakers. Dr. Daniel Montero, a Mayo Clinic sports medicine physician, offers some advice for when to exercise. "Exercise is medicine. If you have symptoms above the neck, things like runny nose, sneezing, of the common cold, such as nasal congestion or runny nose, or minor sore throat, you're OK to exercise," says Dr. Montero. "Exercise may even help you feel better by opening up your nasal passages, for instance. But you may want to reduce the intensity and length of your workout, and limit group activities," he says. Instead of running, for instance, go for a walk. “Any amount of exercise has benefits,” says Dr. Montero. If you have a fever; body aches; fatigue; or other symptoms, such as a stomachache or hacking cough, Dr. Montero says it's best to stick with bed rest for a few days until your symptoms subside.

A post shared by Mayo Clinic (@mayoclinic) on

But when things are changing fast, social media is a key way of ensuring the public is aware of the latest issues, guidelines, and advisories. One way to get the information out there is to share information directly in your social posts.

Another good option is to use social media to direct followers to credible sources of current information. This could mean pointing them to your website, or to public health social accounts.

Raising awareness about credible sources makes it easier for your followers to counter inappropriate healthcare social media claims they see in posts from their own social connections.

On that note, let’s talk about the elephant in the room when it comes to social media and healthcare communication: misinformation.

Combat misinformation

Social media by their very nature help spread information quickly to diverse groups of people. That’s great when the information is fact-based, helpful, and clear. Unfortunately, there’s also a lot of health misinformation on social networks.

Sometimes the misinformation comes in the form of untrue statements. These are relatively easily debunked. You can simply cite published research or the latest information from a credible health source like the CDC or WHO.

But sometimes, the creators and disseminators of misinformation use a reputable institution’s name to give their statements credibility. In this case, it’s important for the institution named as a reference to clarify that they are not the source.

But there’s also misinformation in the form of “facts” presented without context, or in the incorrect context. Again, citing research and information from credible sources is the best approach. But, this may require a softer touch. People are strongly inclined to believe information that supports their existing worldview.

“Sometimes I’ll use [Twitter] to point out obvious misinformation,” Dr. Peter Hotez told the American Medical Association. “But generally I will use it to explain my thinking about an important or emerging infection.”

Here’s Dr. Hotez providing important context to reframe the statistics about how COVID-19 affects younger people.

Crisis communication

More people now get their news from social media than from newspapers. That makes social a key place to share breaking information.

As the COVID-19 situation develops, people turn to government health officials. They’re looking for the latest information and instructions. Canadian provincial medical health officers have used social media and healthcare communication effectively. They are regularly sharing official status updates and restrictions during this time of crisis.

A consistent, reliable voice is a critical resource for everyone in a time of crisis. Canadians have expressed this in their replies to the provincial updates.

Live video on social platforms can also be useful in a crisis. It’s a way for those who don’t have access to local TV programming to access announcements in real time.

Governor Jay Inslee will directly address the people of Washington today at 5:30 pm to lay out enhanced strategies to mitigate the COVID-19 outbreak.

Posted by City of Seattle Government on Monday, March 23, 2020

And pinned posts and cover images can direct people to key resources at a glance.

Screenshot of a pinned post on Facebook

Managing and sharing health information is particularly challenging in a time of crisis. The American Health Lawyers Association, the American Society for Healthcare Risk Management, and the Society for Healthcare Strategy and Market Development suggest that advance preparation is key to an effective crisis response.

Here are some of their key points to help you prepare:

  • Identify key stakeholders, a primary contact, and a spokesperson
  • Know what to do in the first five minutes of a crisis
  • Build trust with your audience—including your internal audience

Answer common questions

Health authorities and other organizations working in the healthcare field are a valuable source of information about all kinds of health concerns.

Social tools offer creative ways for healthcare professionals to address common questions. For example, the government of India developed a Facebook Messenger chatbot. It can answer questions, direct citizens to the right resources, and counter misinformation.

Screenshot of a Facebook messenger bot

Public health monitoring

People post about everything online, including their health. Hashtags like #flu can reveal when diseases are popping up in new locations. Public health organizations can even get a sense of the severity of symptoms.

Professors Michael Paul and Mark Dredze explain how this works in their book, Social Monitoring for Public Health:

“Social media offers advantages over traditional data sources, including real-time data availability, ease of access, and reduced cost. Social media allows us to ask, and answer, questions we never thought possible.”

HealthMap is a project created by a team at Boston Children’s Hospital. It tracks public health threats through data points including crowdsourcing.

Citizen engagement

Healthcare issues can be tricky to talk about, even with doctors. That’s especially true for subjects seen as private or embarrassing. This can get in the way of effective care.

For example, according to the American Sexual Health Association (ASHA), only 12% of young people said they had been tested for sexually transmitted diseases in the last year. But more than half of STDs affect those between the ages of 15 and 24.

ASHA wanted to encourage this age group to view STD testing as a normal part of taking care of their own health. So, they created a healthcare social media marketing campaign. The main component was a social video. In it, comedian Whitney Cummings talked to college students about sexual health.

Whitney Cummings Talks STDs Over Smoothies!

“Don’t spread anything else, just the facts.” Whitney Cummings keeps it real when it comes to STDs. Watch young people react as she shares facts from http://bit.ly/2oIblZi in this new SoulPancake video #YESmeansTEST

Posted by American Sexual Health Association on Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The video got more than 3.6 million views in 10 weeks. More important, it drove a large number of visitors to the campaign’s clinic locator. That shows viewers planned to take real action.

In another example, Johnson & Johnson worked with Kelly Rowland on a campaign to gather community stories for their #MakeHIVHistory campaign. The crowdsourced videos got people talking and helped to create a powerful Instagram post released on World AIDS Day.

Patient support

Nearly 40% of young people (ages 14 to 22) have used online tools to connect with others with similar health challenges. That includes social media groups.

That connection can have real benefits for patients. Researchers published in the journal Surgery created a Facebook group for 350 liver transplant patients, caregivers, and healthcare providers. A full 95% of survey respondents said that joining the group had been positive for their care.

Facebook groups are also a great use of social media for healthcare professionals and patients to interact. The Mount Sinai Hospital Epilepsy Center created a private, invitation-only Facebook group for patients and caregivers. The two doctors who are co-directors of the center acted as moderators and participated in group discussions.

Social group interactions can also include patient support and education. One study is evaluating if a Facebook group for coronary heart disease patients can increase participation in cardiac rehabilitation.

Of course, there are privacy concerns when discussing health online. This is a great use of Facebook secret groups, which do not show up in search results. Users have to be invited to join.

Bonus: Get a free, customizable social media policy template to quickly and easily create guidelines for your company and employees.

Get the template now!

Research recruitment

Social networks offer an opportunity to connect with potential study and survey participants.

Like brands, researchers and healthcare organizations need to understand social media demographics. This allows you to connect with the right audience. It’s also important to know how to target social media ads.

We are carrying out our biggest survey ever to better understand the experiences of people with eczema with their…

Posted by Eczema Outreach Support on Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Connected & Open Research Ethics is a project of the University of California San Diego. The group helps researchers establish guidelines for ethical research using new digital tools. Social networks are among those tools.

Marketing

Sixty-eight percent of U.S. healthcare marketers increased their ad spending on social media for healthcare professionals in 2019. On the consumer side, 42% increased their social marketing budget.

Healthcare social media marketing doesn’t have to be too serious. (Depending on the context, of course.) The health-monitoring subscription service Thriva created a Halloween-themed ad. It promoted the message that checking your health isn’t scary.

????‍♂️????PRICK OR TREAT????????

????‍♂️????PRICK OR TREAT????????HALLOWEEN OFFER ????Use discount code HALLOWEEN2019 for £30 off your first Thriva test ????

Posted by Thriva on Thursday, October 31, 2019

They combined video ads with remarketing efforts to reach UK audiences. They saw an 11% increase in sales volume. There was also a much lower cost per acquisition than budgeted.

Social media tips for healthcare organizations

Educate and share valuable content

As we said above, many people turn to social media for information in times of crisis. But to engage with the public for the long term, you need to regularly provide valuable content that educates and informs.

For example, the Mayo Clinic creates social video series to cover popular health and wellness topics. The “Mayo Clinic Minutes” are short, informative, and engaging. The videos regularly rack up more than 10,000 views. This one, on how to properly wash your hands, has been viewed more than 60,000 times.

Mayo Clinic Minute: How to properly wash your hands

A 20-second way to prevent illness is to wash your hands properly. Knowing when and how to wash your hands will help you avoid sickness from the flu along with a number of diseases. It seems simple enough, but you'd be surprised to find out many people are washing their hands all wrong. https://mayocl.in/32nARVV

Posted by Mayo Clinic on Tuesday, February 25, 2020

The information needs to be credible, of course. And true. But you can get creative and entertaining if that makes sense for your brand.

For example, Dr. Zubin Damania is better known on social as ZDoggMD. His fun social videos counter untrue and irresponsible health claims. He has built a community of more than 1.6 million followers on his Facebook page.

Doc Vader on Baby Yoda

Vaccinate your spawn. It is the way.

Posted by ZDoggMD on Monday, February 3, 2020

Make sure the tone you use is appropriate for your brand personality. The Mayo Clinic videos and the ZDoggMD videos are both engaging in their own way. But it would be very jarring if they exchanged styles.

Listen for relevant conversations

Social listening allows you to track social media conversations relevant to your field.

Those conversations can help you understand how people feel about you, your organization, and your products and services. You can also learn how they feel about the competition. You might even identify new ideas that help guide your social communications strategy.

Social listening is also a good use of social media in healthcare to get a sense of how the public is responding to emergent health issues.

Here are some key terms to listen for on social channels:

  • Your organization or practice name and handles
  • Your product name(s), including common misspellings
  • Your competitors’ brand names, product names, and handles
  • Industry buzzwords: The Healthcare Hashtag Project is a great place to start.
  • Your slogan and those of your competitors
  • Names of key people in your organization (your CEO, spokesperson, etc.)
  • Names of key people in your competitors’ organizations
  • Campaign names or keywords
  • Your branded hashtags and those of your competitors

Social media management platforms like Hootsuite allow you to monitor all relevant keywords and phrases across social networks from a single platform.


For more tips and tools on this, check out our guide on how to set up a social listening strategy.

Remain compliant

One of the big challenges of social media in healthcare is that healthcare social media accounts are subject to strict rules and regulations. HIPAA compliance is a big one, but you also need to make sure you follow FDA rules about advertising.

One of the best-known examples of social media and healthcare clashing in the eye of authorities involves Kim Kardashian. She endorsed the morning sickness drug Diclegis in an Instagram post. Her post contained a link to risk information and limitations of use. But, the FDA determined this information needed to be within the post itself.

After a stern FDA warning, she had to replace the post. Here’s the updated version after the FDA warning:

View this post on Instagram

#CorrectiveAd I guess you saw the attention my last #morningsickness post received. The FDA has told Duchesnay, Inc., that my last post about Diclegis (doxylamine succinate and pyridoxine HCl) was incomplete because it did not include any risk information or important limitations of use for Diclegis. A link to this information accompanied the post, but this didn’t meet FDA requirements. So, I’m re-posting and sharing this important information about Diclegis. For US Residents Only. Diclegis is a prescription medicine used to treat nausea and vomiting of pregnancy in women who have not improved with change in diet or other non-medicine treatments. Limitation of Use: Diclegis has not been studied in women with hyperemesis gravidarum. Important Safety Information Do not take Diclegis if you are allergic to doxylamine succinate, other ethanolamine derivative antihistamines, pyridoxine hydrochloride or any of the ingredients in Diclegis. You should also not take Diclegis in combination with medicines called monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), as these medicines can intensify and prolong the adverse CNS effects of Diclegis. The most common side effect of Diclegis is drowsiness. Do not drive, operate heavy machinery, or other activities that need your full attention unless your healthcare provider says that you may do so. Do not drink alcohol, or take other central nervous system depressants such as cough and cold medicines, certain pain medicines, and medicines that help you sleep while you take Diclegis. Severe drowsiness can happen or become worse causing falls or accidents. Tell your healthcare provider about all of your medical conditions, including if you are breastfeeding or plan to breastfeed. Diclegis can pass into your breast milk and may harm your baby. You should not breastfeed while using Diclegis. Additional safety information can be found at www.DiclegisImportantSafetyinfo.com or www.Diclegis.com. Duchesnay USA encourages you to report negative side effects of prescription drugs to the FDA. Visit www.fda.gov/medwatch or call 1-800-FDA-1088.

A post shared by Kim Kardashian West (@kimkardashian) on

But it’s not just celebrity endorsements that can raise FDA concerns. For example, in late 2019, the FDA sent a warning letter to Organix industries. It specifically referenced claims made on their Instagram account. All posts from their Instagram account have since been deleted.

You don’t want lawyers writing your social media posts. But you might want lawyers (or other compliance experts) to review posts before they go live. This is especially true for major announcements or posts that are particularly sensitive.

Hootsuite can get more of your team involved without increasing compliance risk. People from across your organization can contribute social media content. Then, only those who understand the compliance rules can make a post live.

Your organization needs a social media strategy and a social media style guide. You should also have guidelines for the use of social media for healthcare professionals, and a social media policy for healthcare employees. These help get everyone on the same page and ensure your strategy aligns with relevant rules and regulations. Include clear, HIPAA-compliant guidelines for handling patient information in social posts.

Don’t forget to keep an eye on the comments users leave on your social media posts and profiles, too. These can also create compliance concerns.

It’s always good practice to respond to and engage with social comments. After all, no one likes talking into a void. Your followers will be more likely to engage with your content if they get a response from someone on your team.

When compliance is involved, you may need to take extra steps. For example, you should remove comments that raise privacy concerns. Also watch out for inappropriate claims.

Stay secure

It’s important to put security guidelines in place for your healthcare social media channels. You need to be able to revoke access for anyone who leaves the organization.

With Hootsuite, you can manage permissions from one centralized dashboard. That means you can always control access to social channels.

Integrations can help further secure your healthcare social media marketing channels. For instance, AETracker can help you find and report issues like product complaints and off-label usage. You’ll find out as they happen, so you can take action right away.

Social Safeguard can help screen your social posts against your social media policies. This prevents non-compliant posts from going live.

The simple truth is that patients and the public use social media to find healthcare resources. They use it to look for information, find support, and make healthcare decisions.

Combining social media and healthcare can be challenging. But the use of social media in healthcare also presents incredible new opportunities.

Social media is a great platform to share important health information. It’s also a key place to gather real-time research and insights. Most important, social media is a way to support patients and the public in an easy-to-access and timely way.

Hootsuite makes it easy for healthcare professionals and organizations to manage social media. From a single dashboard you can schedule posts on every network, monitor relevant conversations, and track performance—all while staying secure and compliant.

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