Why hospitals should care about the social media soapbox

Years ago, when someone was unhappy about a product or service, the response was typically to call a customer service department or write a letter to the editor. Of course they also complained to family and friends--and that word-of-mouth bad advertising went a long way. Nancy Cawley Jean

Today, social media gives people a powerful voice to share their thoughts, good or bad, about any topic under the sun, and be heard like never before. One person behind a keyboard or with a smartphone in his or her hand has the potential to be heard by millions of people around the world.

So with that potential reach, it's no wonder that when someone is disgruntled, they head to their favorite social media networks to post a complaint, a photo or a video showing bad service or poor judgment (think Domino's pizza) by employees. It's the place to go to complain, unless, of course, you're in the business of social media. Then you might think twice about it as I recently did.

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A few weeks ago, my dad was hospitalized in a very scary 10-day stay at a hospital. That hospital is part of the health system for which I work and manage its social media. Don't get me wrong--I'm glad dad was there and received the care he did and is now home. The doctors and staff were wonderful, but some things just didn't go as smoothly as I would have liked.

Being an employee, I knew who to call to talk about it. But if I wasn't, I probably would have taken to social media to make a comment or two.

Then I thought of the many patients and their family members who find themselves in a hospital each year. According toCDC statistics, more than 35 million people are hospitalized every year. The stats here show about 54 percent of people are on social networks. That means almost 19 million of those people are using social media. How many of those 19 million people do you suppose would know who to contact in a hospital if they weren't happy about their care?

In this day and age, the chances that a disgruntled and unhappy patient will take to social media to vent and be heard are pretty good. We know people want to voice their opinions, especially when it comes to their health, and what they see as bad care. Think about the bad advertising that can result from those posts. Think about the potential reach of those social postings. It's no wonder people hop on their social media soapboxes to complain when they're not happy with their hospital care.

Now let's remember this: Out of a total of 5,724 hospitals in the United States, only 1,501 use some form of social media. That's only about 26 percent of hospitals. (There's an interesting infographic here on how hospitals are using social media these days, and of course there's the big list of hospitals on the Mayo Clinic Social Media Health Network.)

Those negative comments can certainly impact your hospital's reputation and brand image. After all, word-of-mouth advertising is very strong. When it comes from friends or family, it's even stronger. The 26 percent of hospitals using social media might catch those negative posts and complaints, and then be able to respond and do something to reverse potential damage to their brands. If they're not on social media at all, there's no chance of responding. Let's just hope the post, photo or video doesn't go viral.

When you think of it in these terms, it's easy to see why hospitals must consider being part of today's social networks. How do you deal with unhappy patients on your social networks?

Nancy Cawley Jean is a senior media relations officer for the Lifespan health system in Rhode Island, managing social media for five hospitals and a women's medicine practice.

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