Social Media and Health IT

February 20, 2013

Social media is an influential means of communication for many.  As it continues to evolve, its role in professional industries grows, including within the healthcare community.  More than ever before, patients are turning to technology to become better educated and make more informed decisions about their care.  They are able to access a vast amount of information about specific diseases and conditions, medications, facilities, procedures, and even physicians with the click of a mouse or touch of a smartphone.  While the traditional source of healthcare information was housed in an online encyclopedia format that lacked interactivity, social media channels like Facebook, Twitter, and online forums allow users to gain knowledge by engaging with countless relevant posts.  While the existence of social media channels focusing on health topics brings much potential to improve patient care through education and connectivity, many (especially physicians) are concerned about issues of accuracy, invasiveness, and privacy.  As more people “like” hospital pages or “follow” healthcare advocacy groups, it is likely that laws and rules will be implemented to control the flow of information.  However, the presence of these channels can certainly change the delivery of patient care.

How Social Media is Used

A study published by Demi & Cooper Advertising and DC Interactive Group found that 26% of hospitals in the U.S. participate in some form of social media. Of those who do use social media, it is no surprise that 84% are on Facebook.  Sixty –four percent are on Twitter, 46% are on YouTube, and 12% have blogs.  A separate study by showed that of 1229 hospitals surveyed, 946 had Four Square accounts and 566 had LinkedIn accounts. These statistics alone show that healthcare institutions have a strong presence among the most prominent social media channels.  Amongst physicians and patients, the interest in social media remains strong.  The Demi & Cooper and DC Interactive study found that 60% of doctors say social media improves the quality of care delivered to patients.  It also stated that one-third of patients use social media for health-related matters including, “seeking medical information, tracking and sharing symptoms, and broadcasting how they feel about doctors, drugs, treatments, medical devices and health plans.”  An study showed that 54% of patients are very comfortable or comfortable with their providers seeking advice from online communities to help better treat their conditions.  All this information shows us that social media is widespread but also that it is being used in different ways.

Hospitals, whether large or small, still operate as businesses in many capacities.  The way they use social media is affected by this.  Healthcare facilities are largely using available channels to share information about their facility and health conditions.  However, social media offers organizations the added benefit of being able to receive feedback through comments and online communities and even track a patient’s progress.  For example, Boston College uses a “discharge advocate” or avatar to guide patients through the discharge process.  Social media can also serve as platforms for programs for those recovering from addictions or suffering from other conditions via chat rooms and even video blogs.

Looking to physicians, there is a multitude of ways that social media can be integrated into patient care.  Physicians are able to moderate forums to answer questions and ensure that accurate health information is being shared amongst users.  In addition, social media creates more direct access to physicians (and patients) through emailing and other messaging.  Physicians can also be involved in online education options.  While there is clearly a demand for physicians to be engaging in social media, there are challenges in getting full participation with the group.  Social media obligations add more work to already time-crunched physicians.  There is time needed that is associated with training as well as with the actual engagement with the channels.  Not to mention, doctors can be inundated with messages to respond to if patients are able to reach out to them directly.  Even if physicians elect not to take part in social media, they are still affected by its presence.  Interactions with patients are already changing as they are coming to appointments better informed and playing a more active role in their care.

While it is likely that many physicians will push back on the demands that social media brings, expect to see more doctors connect on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.

Perhaps the most social media savvy groups is patients.  As an overwhelming amount of people participate on numerous channels, they are turning to these already visited sites as their source of health information, too.  Whether it is reading blogs about a condition that affects them, sharing thoughts on a forum, or even critiquing care through posts, patients expect to be connected and want immediate answers.  Healthcare IT News cites finding information quickly, having information streamlined, being engaged, receiving help with the practical parts of care, and receiving help with the healing process as among the top things patients want from social media.

Patients of all age groups have shown interest in social media, including older adults.  Demi & Cooper and DC Interactive found that more than 80% of people between 18-24 said they were likely to share health information through social media and almost 90% said they would trust the information they found there.  More than half of the senior population online said they were ready to use the internet to manage their care and communicate with physicians.  Patients show trust in hospitals, physicians, nurses, and other patients and are being influenced on their healthcare choices by what they view on social media. As we’ve discussed in a previous blog, they are also ready to use mobile devices as a source of health information.  The demand is high from patients for physicians and facilities to keep up with social media to attract and maintain them as their “customers”.

The possibilities of spreading health information and managing care through social media are endless.  However, with this innovation comes risks and other concerns, including violating HIPAA laws, decreased healthcare staff productivity, time necessary to educate staff on effective use of the channels, and how to  integrate the data into an organization.  Ultimately, though, the adoption of social media in healthcare is widespread and its use will remain well into the future.

Excite Health Partners
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