VA's hospital Facebook efforts aim to boost interaction with veterans

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has set up Facebook pages for each of its 152 medical centers to try to engage more fully with returning veterans. The VA's proactive use of Facebook parallels that of private-sector hospitals that are using social media as a marketing tool. But it sharply contrasts with the reluctance of private-sector physicians to communicate with patients via social media.

The VA has had a Facebook presence since 2008. Besides its Facebook pages, the department now boasts 64 Twitter feeds, a YouTube channel, a Flickr page, and the "VAntage Point" blog. It plans to bring Twitter to all of its hospitals.

More than 345,000 people now are "fans" of the VA's Facebook page, including 154,000 on its main Facebook page and 69,000 on those of its medical centers.

The main purposes of the VA's social media effort are to help veterans understand their benefits and ensure they receive appropriate healthcare. VA clinicians are not permitted to answer their patients' health-related questions on Facebook. However, the VA staff does monitor the sites and can communicate with veterans in other ways, such as intervening to prevent suicides or address emotional crises.

Last summer, the VA announced a social media policy allowing its employees to engage with veterans through Facebook, Twitter and other channels. The department also encouraged veterans to communicate with VA staff via social media.

Private-sector hospitals use social media so much these days that a consultant recently advised them to cut back because they've saturated the market. But physicians take a very different view. Because of the legal and ethical implications of sharing information with patients via social media, most avoid going on Facebook or tweeting with patients.

While 67 percent of physicians use social media for professional purposes, just 15 percent use Facebook and only 3 percent, Twitter, according to a recent survey. A third of doctors have received invitations to "friend" patients on Facebook, but 75 percent of them declined.

Nevertheless, a CSC study predicts that social media will play an increasing role in care management. Some of the areas in which this might happen are programs to increase medication compliance and remote patient monitoring, CSC's study said.

To learn more:
- read the VA press release
- see the Healthcare IT News story
- check out an InformationWeek Healthcare piece on physicians' use of social media 

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