Marc Needham, director of Web technology at Scripps Health in San Diego, walked into the meeting with a stack of papers the size of a phone book. It contained printouts from all the Web sites where people were talking about Scripps—including reviews on sites such as Yelp.com, blog posts, videos, news stories, and reader comments about the four-hospital system.
"Here are some examples of the conversations that are happening," he told the room. "And we need to be a part of it."
Despite some initial hesitation, Scripps today has accounts on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and other social media sites. Needham, often with help from the communications department at the hospital, not only sends out information about Scripps, but also responds to comments and reviews—both positive and negative. Patients are often pleasantly surprised when the hospital reaches out to perform service recovery using a high-tech platform for high-touch interactions.
But even Needham isn't a complete convert to social media. "There's still a lot of hype around it. As a medium it's a little malnourished."
Hospitals in general have several common fears about social media. Open forums and relative anonymity might prompt people to make negative comments. Although it's simple and usually free to sign up, it takes time and effort to participate—and it's even harder to do so successfully. There's no immediate financial return on investment. And a lot of folks—including (perhaps especially) healthcare decision-makers—just don't get it, or think social media is a passing fad.
"A lot of facilities are not sure what the reward is, but they know the risk is pretty great," says Reed Smith, director of project management at the Texas Hospital Association in Austin.
The chief argument against using social media is that you can't control what's being said about your organization. Ironically, Smith says, the opposite is true. "These conversations are going to happen anyway, so it's just a matter of whether or not you're going to participate in the conversation," he says. "If you're not involved, you don't really have any influence."
Chris Lindsley, Web site editor at the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC), which maintains a robust online presence, agrees. "The bigger risk is not being engaged, not knowing what's going on, putting your head in the sand," he says.
The trick, Smith, Lindsley, and others say, is to make the most of social media platforms by following emerging best practices.
The biggest mistake hospitals make is confusing social media with one-way communication tools, "just like any other old-school marketing technique," says Paul Hernandez, group marketing manager for Q1 Productions, a healthcare conference and webinar production firm in Chicago. Some hospitals have hundreds or thousands of people signed up to follow them on Twitter but only follow back a handful. Or they use Facebook to push out press releases and other information about their organization and to drive traffic back to their own Web site without showing any interest in what others are talking about.
"I think it sends a message that you're confused about social media. And it's kind of cold," Hernandez says. "The whole point of social media is to be social."
That's the philosophy at UMMC. "We want to be engaged. We want to know what's being said about us. And we want to be able to react to that," Lindsley says.
UMMC uses social media in multiple ways: for service recovery, to respond to and share positive feedback, and to learn from other healthcare organizations by watching what they do with the emerging medium. "I think that's an important part of what we're doing . . . to learn and continue to improve and see different ways to do things," Lindsley says.
From a marketing standpoint, social media is a great way to build brand recognition, he adds, especially for an academic medical center that offers such high-tech services as robotic and minimally invasive surgery. What better way to show you are a thought-leader, that you are willing to embrace new technology, and that you are open to new ideas than to show you are adept and savvy when it comes to social media?
"We're interested in creating that impression that we're a cutting-edge institution," he says. "If we can create that image through social media, that we're a cutting-edge hospital, that's all the better."