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3 Steps Toward Better Patient Engagement via Social Media

 |  By Marianne Aiello  
   September 10, 2014


Being strategic about social media initiatives means establishing meaningful connections with patients. That requires healthcare marketers to not only understand the patients' wants and needs, but how they use social media.

Last week I was fortunate enough to find myself on a high-speed train from London to Edinburgh, enjoying the lush and sheep-riddled landscape passing outside the window… until I realized the Wi-Fi that I had paid nearly $20 to access wasn't working.

While this was endlessly frustrating (seen one sheep, seen 'em all) the way the rail company handled the situation left me with a high opinion of the organization, despite its faulty router. It was able to issue me a refund (and apology) by the time the train crossed the border into Scotland—all via Twitter.

This sort of social customer engagement is slowly being adopted by healthcare organizations, with some trailblazing hospital marketing departments more than keeping up with consumer brands. Mayo Clinic and Vanderbilt University Medical Center are two such organizations, due largely in part because they each have a clear understanding of how social media can greatly enhance patient engagement.

1. Understanding Social Engagement
"Many patients are already engaged online, and have been gathering in communities to discuss diseases and conditions that are important to them," says Lee Aase, director of the Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media.

"Physicians and other healthcare providers have been relatively slower to become involved, often because of fears or misunderstanding about what is appropriate. Physician and hospital involvement in social media can contribute to constructive online engagement."

Because hospital involvement in social media is so new, many patients are surprised when they hear from Vanderbilt online.


"I cannot tell you the number of times we have responded to message on Twitter that references an experience with us to find that the user is shocked that they got a response," says Cynthia Manley, director of content strategy for the 966-bed hospital. "They typically are at least pleasantly surprised—even in circumstances of 'service recovery'—and often they are delighted."

Though some patients may be surprised to find the hospital online, Vanderbilt's social reach is impressive—its Facebook page has nearly 150,000 likes and its Twitter account has more than 9,000 followers. And Mayo Clinic has long set the social bar for healthcare organizations, with 537,000 likes on Facebook and 852,000 followers on Twitter.

2. Launching Strategic Online Initiatives
Mayo Clinic's online impact comes down to creating trustworthy content, from videos to blog posts, Aase says.

One of the most significant successes for the three-hospital system was initiating and participating in Twitter chats about certain conditions.

In 2009, Mayo Clinic held its first Twitter chat related to a story about unexplained wrist pain plaguing a baseball player who was being treated by one of the health system's orthopedic surgeons. The #wristpain Twitter chat was announced in USA Today to let readers know they would have a chance to ask questions directly to the physician.

"We've done numerous Twitter chats since then, and one of the important factors is having a media partner to help make potential participants aware of the opportunity," Aase says. "If they use their traditional means to publicize the chat, that helps. If they put the notice in their Twitter accounts, that's important too, because they tend to have large follower bases. And by publicizing on Twitter it is reaching an audience that already has taken the step of creating a Twitter account."


Manley and her team have achieved their social success by being strategic about every initiative, paying close attention to which audience they are aiming to engage, and determining the best way to make a meaningful connection with them. This requires them to think about not only the audience's wants and needs, but the way the audience uses social media.

"For instance, if I am trying to reach 50-year-old women, the most brilliant tactical execution in Google Plus is probably not going to work because, by and large, the women I'm trying to reach aren't using Google Plus," she says.

This strategic approach to social patient engagement lead to one of the medical center's most successful online initiatives—a private Facebook group created for its surgical weight loss patients.

It has worked because our objective was focused and clear—facilitate peer-to-peer support—and it aligned with a very real need of this group," Manley says. "The community is truly that—a community of patients going through an experience that impacts virtually everything about their lives. It is really about them, not us, and that is what set the stage for success."

3. Tracking the Right Metrics
Vanderbilt's social strategy is grounded in closely tracked analytics and metrics, which amounts to much more than simply keeping updated spreadsheets and reports. The trick, Manley says, is to make sure you're measuring the right elements.

"There are so many things you can measure in the online environment, you can easily find yourself chasing rabbits," she says.


"There are also many tools out there for measuring and listening and reporting and analyzing. No one tool is perfect. What they can do and what you'll pay to use them—in both dollars and staff time—vary considerably. It is critical to know what you are trying to accomplish, why you want to measure something and what you're going to actually do with that data once you measure it."

Sometimes trial and error must be used to determine which social engagement tactics work best, and paying close attention to metrics is critical to that technique.

"Analytics are important to help us learn about what works best," Aase says. "We have a strong organizational commitment to being involved in social media, and analytics help us identify best practices so we can continually improve."

Of course, the key to providing strong social engagement for patients is remembering that it is secondary to real-life experiences.

"The most important engagement we have with our patients is in their real-world experience with us in our clinics, in our hospitals, over the phone and in other direct communication and interactions," Manley says. "I always tell our clinical teams that they should strive to make every patient encounter Facebook worthy."

Join Cynthia Floyd Manley and Lee Aase of the Mayo Clinic for a Healthleaders webcast, "Mayo Clinic & Vanderbilt Health—The New Social Media Playbook" on September 16 from 1:00–2:30 PM ET.


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