Why hospital social media is a full-time job

With technology changing every day, it can be hard to keep up with best practices in the social media sphere. One thing's for sure, though; patients are looking online to find out and talk about hospitals. In fact, more than half of patients (57 percent) would pick a hospital based on its social media presence. Even more consumers (81 percent) see hospitals visible in social media as more cutting edge, according to market research firm YouGov Healthcare.

You might be surprised to hear that healthcare organizations aren't that much different than the hospitality industry. FierceHealthcare caught up with YouGov Healthcare Managing Director Jane Donohue (pictured) who gave the low-down on social media use at hospitals today, including tips on monitoring and patient privacy concerns. Hear why social media shouldn't only be the PR mouthpiece and why it's a full-time job.

FierceHealthcare: YouGov Healthcare recently released a report on consumer expectations on hospital use of social media. What were the surprising results?

Donohue: Our read on the data was very positive. Hospital social media will become a very powerful social media tool. It's certainly growing; it's still in its infancy.

The parallels with consumers' use of social media in other industries, such as hospitality, were quite surprising. It gives an indication of what the role of social media will play within the hospital industry.

FierceHealthcare: What parallels exist in social media use between hospitals and hospitality?

Donohue: Seventy percent of users are passive users in that they don't post; they just read. If you're engaged in a social media site, the likelihood to purchase a hospitality product or service--the percentages [between the two]--were identical.

We define social media very broadly, beyond Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. We looked at the review sites also. We were surprised that consumers were going to review sites and blogs as often as they are going to the official hospital sites. Clearly, any successful social media strategy is going to have to monitor and engage those [review site] conversations because you don't control them. With your own content on Facebook and Twitter, you have a lot of control, but you certainly need to be engaged in those conversations.

FierceHealthcare: Who in the organization should be monitoring?

Donohue: There are agencies and companies that can help you monitor and maintain it. But any successful social media strategy does need to include monitoring of those sorts of conversations on review sites and blogs that you are not in control of.

FierceHealthcare:  Do consumers, that is, patients gravitate to one type of social media?

Donohue:  It's split 50/50 between review sites and other traditional social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter. Between Facebook and Twitter, Facebook is the dominant one by far.

FierceHealthcare: What type of content should be posted? Press releases?

Donohue: Yes, but it goes beyond just PR. These are conversations that you actually need to be engaged in. That's a mistake when people view it as just a place to post PR. What people are looking for online is information about the hospital, about programs, about activities, about very specific health concerns; they want to learn about it. Posting press releases is great; it's a marvelous place to do that, but an effective, successful site will be much more than that.

FierceHealthcare: Should the hospital executive or press office be monitoring its social media?

Donohue: I think it's a marketing function. Executives within in marketing really need to look at this as a tool to monitor what's going on. For example, people are really interested in specific lines of service, [such as] information on cardiology, oncology, or women's health. That type of content is really a marketing function.

FierceHealthcare: Should the social media monitor police individual physicians who engage in social media?

Donohue: I think you need to monitor it. Every hospital really does need a policy, a sound policy that could be communicated for physicians. I think the policing should be minimal. You set the guidelines and hope people abide by that.

FierceHealthcare: Should organizations encourage their individual physicians to engage in discussions online?

Donohue: Encourage? I wouldn't discourage. There are some people who really want to do this, who are very good at this. It's a pleasure for them, and they're good at it. For other physicians, it's simply not their thing. Should there be a physician who really is engaged and enjoys it, then I wouldn't discourage them.

FierceHealthcare: What are the patient privacy concerns? Should organizations and physicians avoid discussing individual patients?

Donohue: Of course you would. If an individual patient is online and volunteers, opted in, to talk about their patient experience, there's no privacy [concerns]. But if you're talking about a patient without their opt in, without their permission, then yes, that's wrong.

The goal would be to get [patients] in a really interactive way to be talking about their experience and communicating to others like them, and that becomes a different type of engagement, and there would be no HIPAA concerns with that.

FierceHealthcare:  What advice do you have for healthcare executives?

Donohue: Social media needs a [full-time equivalent]. To just throw this at someone in marketing or communications as an add-on could be shortsighted. This is an incredibly powerful tool to create and sustain loyalty and therefore enhance the lifetime value of the patient. It's a great opportunity to do right; it can be very effective. Executives really need to look at this with that sort of financial commitment.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.