Social media bugaboo: How to handle grief and memorial in the Internet age

When FiercePracticeManagement launched in 2010, healthcare social media was in its infancy. The major questions surrounding websites such as Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Google+, Pinterest and the like were, "What are they? Why should I use them? How do they work?"

As the conversation continued to evolve, I shared in 2011 what I'd learned thus far about measuring the results of social media efforts in a panel discussion at the Cleveland Clinic's Patient Experience: Empathy and Innovation Summit. At the time, the still-common mistake of launching social media campaigns for the sake of launching a campaign was more the rule than the exception for many healthcare marketers.

We've come quite a way from that introductory period in a relatively short time. Through trial and error (and the viral nature of others' missteps), we now have a fairly good grasp of the big social media do's and don'ts.

Now that many of us use social media with sophistication, there's another lingering bugaboo I'd like to address. For the purposes of creating a meaningful dialogue (one of the many reasons social media is such a helpful tool), today I leave you with more questions than answers.

My first question is one of particular personal importance today--the eighth 'sadiversary' of my older brother's passing. But looking at it through a mostly business lens, how has social media changed the experience of grief and memorial?

The fact that each of us today has access to an exponentially larger support system than we did a decade ago is mind-blowing. And when we consider that just one person can turn a personal heartbreak into a professional message of social good? Wow.

My attitude evolved over time. The first time I saw a friend announce to the world via Facebook her mother's very recent (as in hours) death, I was appalled. But in recognizing the power and authenticity of social communities, I got over it. I no longer consider a person's 'checking in' to a hospital while visiting a loved one as tacky. Just Monday, a lifelong friend posted from the hospital that his father was "home"; and from following updates over several days, I knew what it meant. It was a moment of poignancy I'll never forget, and I'm grateful that modern technology made it possible.

So what does that mean for you? Whatever you want it to. Three years ago, I might have recommended a Foursquare account for maybe an OB/GYN practice, but not for an oncologist. I think that bias is fading for a lot of folks. Your patient population is made up of a mix of social media habits, comfort levels and needs. But you can facilitate their opportunity to share their health experiences in the way that works for them.

Not everyone chooses to fight their battles in public, and that's fine. But human connection is important, and in today's fast-paced healthcare environment, much of that interaction and social support is pushed online.

In some cases, this means making personal experiences more public. In others, it's about supporting people's personal connections to public tragedies. A month from now, as a nation we will remember the one-year anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings. Chances are that social media will foster discussion--not for the purposes of reliving a nightmare--but with messages of courage, hope, remembrance and national healing.

Should you post regarding this and other events when the anniversaries roll around? It's entirely up to you and what feels appropriate for your organization. The adage that less is more likely applies here. A ribbon, a link to an inspirational story or simple thank you to your patients and community may be all it takes to foster that moment of human connection. - Deb (@PracticeMgt)