Thursday, May 28, 2009

Hospitals Pushing the Envelope with Social Media

This article also appeared in

The Line Between Marketing and Education Begins to Shift
The usually conservative hospital sector has started to embrace social media. Whether it's increasing competition, the need to keep patients coming through the door, reputation management or recruiting, hospitals are turning to these new web-based tools for assistance in increasing numbers. Ed Bennett, the director of Web Strategy at the University of Maryland Medical System, keeps tabs on this: there are 128 hospitals that have YouTube channels, 87 with Facebook pages, 140 have Twitter accounts and 23 have blogs. It's notable but still a minority. There are over 5,000 hospitals in the US.

In the StarTribune (Minneapolis-St. Paul), Chen May Yee spotlighted how "Mayo Turns to Social Media to Reach Out to Potential Patients." Lee Aase, manager of Syndication and Social Media, has helped to give the famous medical center an even greater public platform. Indeed, it was reported that he has developed so much expertise that he "travels the country to speak at conferences and runs his own virtual Social Media University, Global (SMUG), a web site with courses such as Blogging 101." The newspaper called him "a rock star in that space where social media and health care marketing overlap."

Two good examples of appropriate and valuable uses of the technology include Innovis Health in Fargo, which used Twitter to help people find the safest route to the hospital during the recent floods in North Dakota, and the University of California at San Francisco, which used YouTube to reach out to potential patients for a clinical trial that had difficulty enrolling volunteers.

But I see another side to this coin. In "Webcast Your Brain Surgery? Hospitals See Marketing Tool," Pam Belluck of The New York Times reported on a surgeon who was tweeting during the removal of a kidney tumor. He said, "Gosh, this is big" and "Could I have picked a harder case for this?" The hospital's web services manager said, "some bleeding needed to be controlled," but "we just tweeted right through it." Maybe there is some educational value in this but my first reaction was "please stop tweeting and give your full attention to the patient!"

Methodist University Hospital in Memphis transmits live webcasts for some surgeries. After seeing an advertisement for an upcoming craniotomy, a man called to volunteer and was accepted to be a patient. He said that if the doctor "was operating live on the web, he must be pretty darn good." What the hospital told the Times, however, was that a back-up video is always at the ready. "If something unforeseen happens and you need to cut away from the surgery, you can fall back on your previous surgery." OK, you want to spare your audience (and the family) from potential tragedy but there is something bait-and-switch-ish about this.

As we've seen, some of the most venerable names in patient care are joining other industry sectors in engaging the public. But does that make it right? Should hospitals behave like consumer goods companies?

The biggest questions, in my view though, revolve around ethics and value:

1. Is the particular use or application ethical? While hospitals take great care in protecting patient confidentiality, more care needs to be applied to marketing and public relations. Sure, sharing information is great. But Jeffrey Kahn, a University of Minnesota bioethicist, pointed out in the Times article that, while there is "value in demystifying medical care," the ability to use new web technologies "creates an aura of sophistication and high-tech ability" that may not represent the "quality of care at the hospital."

2. Is the particular use or application creating any value? Just because social marketing tools are cheap to implement doesn't mean they should always be utilized. The "we have nothing to lose" argument does not apply. And, even though web conversations are occurring anyway doesn't mean you must always be an active participant. Clearly, the people behind the social media push are gaining notoriety but less clear is the pay-off for the hospitals they represent. For every patient that might be impressed, there may be others who are dismayed.

It's a fascinating time in the world of marketing and communications. Yet, while we create new tools and channels, we'll need to ensure they accomplish what we intend.


Anonymous said...

I am glad you posted this. Actually, I reached you through LinkedIn. One question: Can't the focus on the patient argument also be used with regard to the older technology of surgery films, or even the teaching amphitheatre? I guess maybe it is an issue of scale. So many more viewers on the Web. I see social media as useful for support groups that are hospital based. Your thoughts?

Frances Chapman

Paul Oestreicher said...

I think using social media for support groups, especially for those with mobility issues or are geographically distant, is a great idea. The bottom line continues to be that social media isn't necessarily the default mode. The way in which we communicate must depend on what we need to do and what we need to know.

Emine K. said...

From a legal perspective, I don't think its wise for live-stream videos of surgeries to be posted on social media sites. Anyone, anywhere can view the live-streams and I'd be worried about opening myself up to law suits (if I were a doctor).

I don't think posting a live-stream of a heart transplant creates any value (unless of course it is for medical students/other relevant audiences). Once the hype over new social media tools passes, and we are no longer in the honeymoon period of using them (Pinterest, Twitter, etc.), social media marketing tools will only be used when they are needed/relevant.

Emine Kasapoglu