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Twitter Can Play Key Role in Disaster Management

Scott Wallask, for HealthLeaders Media, December 30, 2009

While it might not qualify yet as a warm embrace, safety and facilities professionals in hospitals in 2009 at least shook hands with Twitter and found new ways to get their messages across using the social media site.

For those of you unfamiliar with Twitter, at its core is the ability for users to post short, 140-character updates—known as "tweets"—about what they're doing. You can keep track of other's tweets you're interested in (i.e., people you're "following") and also see who's reading your tweets (i.e., "followers"). You need to be registered with Twitter to follow someone's tweets.

Disaster management seems to be a natural extension of Twitter for hospital safety officers and emergency management coordinators. Here are two examples of many seen over the past year:

  • After the mass shootings at Ford Hood, TX, on November 5, Scott & White Hospital in Temple, TX, revved up its existing Twitter presence with useful updates (the hospital received 10 shooting victims). Among the information tweeted: the operating status of the hospital's ER and wait times for volunteers to give blood.
  • Sts. Mary & Elizabeth Hospital in Louisville, KY, experienced terrible flooding in August, and the facility used Twitter to keep the public and employees up-to-date on evacuated patients and building conditions.

Tweeting has not been lost on The Joint Commission. In its August 2009 Environment of Care News, the accreditor noted that an emergency management standard requires hospitals to prepare for emergency communications with staff members, external authorities, patients, families, media, vendors, and other healthcare facilities. Social media sites are a good strategy for emergency communication, the commission said. Other hospitals use Twitter to promote safety initiatives to their staff members and the public.

The communications department at SSM Health Care in St. Louis created an animated safety champion named Super Carol, who appears in employee-focused print and online media, offering information on hot-button issues, such as handwashing protocols, patient lifting, and needlestick prevention. SSM uses its Twitter account in part to update people about the latest adventures of Super Carol.

"Safety can be numbing to people because we preach it all the time," said Lorraine Kee, SSM's corporate Web manager. "I like [Super Carol] because it pushes it out in a newer, fresher way."

Safety officers can also find tweets from others to be helpful on the job. Earlier in December, U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis tweeted about her agency's updated regulatory agenda, which included information about an airborne transmissible disease standard, which is posed to become a big issue for safety officers.


Scott Wallask is senior managing editor for the Hospital Safety Center. He can be reached at swallask@hcpro.com.

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