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Social Media’s Having a Crisis. Here’s Why Your Organization Still Needs It.

Insights from the Mayo Clinic and more

It’s been just about 15 years since Facebook brought social networking to the mainstream, and like a lot of teenagers, it’s having an identity crisis. Data breaches, electioneering scandals, and privacy concerns are buffeting the platform, along with its offshoots and competitors.

With all this going on, hospital leaders may be wondering: is using social media still a sustainable strategy for connecting with patients?

The answer is an unequivocal yes. But as social media comes of age, so should health systems’ relationship with it. Lee Aase, Director of the Mayo Clinic Social Media Network, recently shared some advice on the subject in an issue of BoardRoom Press.

Here are three of his tips to help your organization find a mature social-media strategy.

  1. Get Involved—But Have a Plan

94% of healthcare organizations have some social-media presence. Nowhere near as many have a social-media strategy. Instead, many health-system marketing teams improvise, eking out likes and shares as they go.

Lee points out that this is usually not the best approach. The stakes are high for hospitals’ online interactions—so hospitals should make them count. “Your patients are already talking about your hospital online,” he says. “You will be affected by what they say.”

To keep that social-media conversation meaningful, hospitals should approach social engagement strategically. Tips on how to accomplish that could fill an entire book. But at the very minimum, hospitals should establish clear lines of thought for two issues:

Employee social-media presence. Your hospital probably doesn’t need a stand-alone social-media policy. But guidelines will help employees understand how to apply existing hospital policy when they’re online. This is critical to help healthcare systems protect their online brands. The Mayo Clinic shares their guidelines here.

Responses to customer complaints. No matter how excellent the hospital, there will always be a vocal minority of unhappy patients. Sometimes they bring their complaints to highly visible social-media platforms. A consistent policy on how to field these concerns will serve hospitals well. If hospital staff can address complaints with respect and tact, they’ll often be able to defuse the situation, and earn a lot of credibility in the process.

  1. Watch out for Risks

“A chainsaw can do work much more quickly than an axe, but also can do much more damage if used improperly,” Lee says. Likewise, social media can be an extraordinarily valuable marketing tool, but it comes with substantial risks.

The most obvious of these is HIPAA violations. Each one could cost hospitals up to $1.5 million in civil fines alone—not even counting additional criminal penalties or legal settlements for victims.

And with social media, it’s distressingly easy for employees to break the law. Some of the more common social-media HIPAA fouls are:

– Posting images of a patient without written consent

– Posting gossipy information (often gripes and complaints) about patients online

– Posting identifying details about patients

– Posting photos where Protected Health Information (PHI) is at all visible

This last one is particularly troubling. Medical identity theft is on the rise, and thieves can potentially use images from social media to compromise patients’ records. That’s why even something as innocuous as a selfie with a patient chart in the distant background can result in civil and criminal penalties for a healthcare facility.

The guidelines mentioned above can help employees protect their patients’ privacy. But safe social-media training must be a persistent, ongoing effort. It’s the only way to avoid running afoul of HIPAA laws.

  1. Capture Opportunities

But health-system leaders shouldn’t let these risks scare them away from social media’s promising innovations. The evidence is clear that social networks empower healthcare professionals to accomplish some remarkable things:

A study from Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia found social media to be the single most effective way to reach an extremely vulnerable patient population: homeless youth.

– Researchers in Canada discovered that social-media engagement improved patient compliance with dietary recommendations.

– A meta-analysis from Hong Kong Polytechnic University confirmed how much clinicians rely on social media to educate each other, make referrals, and support care delivery.

– And finally, Cochrane Child Health carefully reviewed their social-media activity for more than a year, and found empirical evidence supporting social media’s unique efficiency in disseminating evidence to healthcare professionals—and in enhancing the prestige of a healthcare brand.

Don’t Miss Social Media’s Promise

Among marketing experts, much is made of social media’s ROI. The techniques listed above illustrate how powerful those returns can be. There’s obvious value for investment in social.

But there’s a further ROI that healthcare organizations should consider. Lee (paraphrasing media consultant Danny Brown) calls it not Return on Investment, but the Risk of Ignoring. He means that social media gives healthcare organizations an unprecedented opportunity to connect with their patients. There’s no doubt that savvy organizations will continue to capitalize on it—and those that don’t will find themselves further behind the curve.