Everybody's talking about social media, but it's hard to find examples of how, exactly, hospitals can use it to build their brand, create buzz, connect with physicians, and educate patients. One hospital that's getting it right: Henry Ford Health System in Detroit. Most recently, the hospital gained national attention when it performed a surgery and posted 140-character updates live on the micro-blogging site Twitter.
I asked William Ferris, Web manager at Henry Ford Health System (he also twitters about the Detroit Tigers), about the organization's social media efforts.
Gienna Shaw: So, why did your organization decide to describe the surgery live on Twitter?
William Ferris: We did the first one (the robotic cystectomy) in conjunction with the IRUS conference [the International Robotic Urological Symposium]. It was an opportunity to both try a new way to interact with patients and other physicians, and promote the IRUS conference. The feedback we received was generally favorable, so it became another way to share an innovative surgery with people, and it can be done in an interactive way.
GS: What were the benefits of this event—both for the audience and for Henry Ford?
WF: It gives patients and other physicians access into an OR to ask questions (even if it is only 140 characters at a time). We also were able to highlight a treatment option that isn't widely known, and in this case it saved the patient's kidney.
GS: What other social mediums does Henry Ford employ? In what ways do you use them?
WF: We also have a YouTube channel, several podcasts, and the COO/CNO of our new West Bloomfield Hospital has begun blogging. We also have one provider blog that is authored by CNM Deborah McBain that is done in conjunction with a menopause support group.
Primarily these media are currently being used as distribution channels, but my goal is for them to be additional patient touchpoints.
GS: Are people paying attention? What kind of response do you get from patients and physicians?
WF: The response has generally been favorable. In the case of the surgeries we've been aided by the fact that Dr. Rajesh Laungani has turned out to be an excellent Twitterer, in my opinion. [Look for posts on Henry Ford's Twitter feed] He's a chief resident urologist and does a nice job balancing complex medical information physicians can use while answering questions in a way that non-clinical people can understand.
GS: How would you describe the state of social media in healthcare?
WF: Emerging. Many institutions (including Henry Ford) are trying to find out how to best leverage these tools. It provides another mechanism to interact with patients and outside physicians while also another channel to communicate your message. And it can be done at a relatively low cost. But understanding the right balance points for transparency and privacy are important considerations that we're still exploring.
So what can healthcare marketers learn from Henry Ford?
First, participate in multiple social media sites to strengthen your online presence. Remember that many of your customers are still just dipping their toes into social media, too. You have to reach them where they are, and that means cross-promotion on multiple platforms.
Second, don't just use Twitter or other sites as glorified press release feeds. You might not be ready to take as dramatic a step as twittering surgery live, but you can focus on your own strengths and tell your unique story.
Third, make sure the conversation is two-way. During the surgery (and for some time afterward) viewers posted questions about the event, engaging with the surgeons who were in the OR (and no, the surgeons did not twitter while they were performing the surgery—another doc was there to monitor the computer screen, post updates, and answer questions).
What can you offer to online audiences that other hospitals cannot? What can you do that is different, that will help your organization stand out? Henry Ford wanted to promote its surgeons and its technology. Decide what you want to be known for before launching an online persona. And then ask yourself how you can communicate that in new and buzz-worthy ways.