They’re Not Following the Trend Most Area Health Care Providers Have Been Slow to Adopt Social Media

John Garvey works with businesses across the spectrum of industries, helping them market themselves with the most current tools available. Increasingly, those resources include social-media channels like Facebook and Twitter.

But one industry has lagged behind others when it comes to putting those tools to use.

“In every other category you could mention, I can find many examples of people who are intrigued and excited about social media, but not health care,” said Garvey, president of Garvey Communication Associates.

The question is why. Those who say the lack of interest in sharing information online is due to privacy issues — the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act ensures the security of patients’ records — are only partly correct, he suggested.

That’s because two other industries with strict regulations regarding privacy and information security, banking and insurance, have found ways to communicate with their customers (and potential ones) through social media. As local examples, Garvey said both PeoplesBank and FieldEddy have enthusiastically begun to incorporate these tools in their marketing.

“I almost want to say health care doesn’t understand the trend, rather than being opposed to it,” he said. “What you can do with social media, more or less, is educate. You can engage your public and get a two-way conversation going back and forth. You don’t necessarily want direct questions about someone’s health, but surely you could address general questions about health. But they’re not doing that.”

Some hospitals and other providers are taking baby steps toward social media, but most are moving slowly. Several hospitals The Healthcare News asked about this topic admitted they haven’t done much, or are only starting to discuss strategies to incorporate this very 21st-century-style marketing.

“Let’s face it,” said Christine Pilch, social media strategist, speaker, and trainer with Grow My Company. “In any business that is ‘B to C’ — business to consumer — there is a vast potential for social media, and hospitals and the health care industry are B to C, so there is plenty of opportunity for them to reach their constituents in that way.”

This month, The Healthcare News logs on to this slowly percolating trend to examine how social media can help an organization expand its customer base — and some right and wrong ways of going about it.

Give and Take

One reason health care has been a late adopter of social media, Pilch suggested, is a lingering misconception about its purpose. Specifically, it’s a lot different than a static Web site that simply shares information about a company.

“Social media is certainly making it easier to communicate with people,” she said. “But keep in mind that, as a method of communication, it’s a two-way street. Where Web sites push, push, push information, social media opens up a dialogue between potential patients and medical providers. If you’re only looking to out up information about yourself, you’re not giving people a reason to connect with you.”

And the give and take of that dialogue can trip up some doctors, especially traditionalists who don’t want every piece of advice questioned.

“Those who choose to utilize these marketing tactics have to embrace the possibility that people are going to ask questions,” Pilch said. “They need to share information, need to communicate back. Are you prepared to handle the questions coming in? In what fashion will you handle them?”

Yet, some health services have adopted social media mainly to market their services, intending to create buzz more than a dialogue. A case in point is the Blood Donor Center at Mercy Medical Center.

“We were asked by Catholic Health East to become part of a multi-facility pilot study of the use of Facebook and Twitter,” said Aimee Campbell, blood bank manager. “The hospital had to identify departments they felt could use some type of marketing.” After consideration, the hospital identified the blood bank an ideal place to start.

“On Facebook, we built a profile page and documented who we are, where we are, our hours of operation, and what we provide, and we started asking our donors, ‘are you on Facebook?’” Campbell explained. The site started slowly picking up fans until it topped 200, admittedly not an eye-popping number.

The hits significantly increased, however, when the site experienced what Campbell called a “reversal of marketing” involving Atkins Farms, which boasted almost 2,500 fans at the time, including the Mercy blood bank.

To promote a scheduled blood drive at Atkins, the Amherst store became a fan of the blood bank, prompting a flood of hits from Atkins fans that, otherwise, might never have been aware of Mercy’s roving donor program. Campbell said her hit count shot into the hundreds per week, and presumably a few of those wound up giving blood.

She began to see how the intertwined fan pages on Facebook could increase her marketing efforts exponentially if the Atkins Farm experience is repeated with other businesses that host blood drives.

Twitter, however, has not been nearly as effective.

“We’ve had a hard time finding an audience on Twitter,” Campbell said. “I don’t think it’s the right medium for us. It’s less interactive; the comments are just thrown out there. Facebook is a little more interactive. People can see the locations and times for the buses; it’s right there on the page.”

Campbell’s online goals are similar to those of the Pioneer Valley Chapter of the American Red Cross, which recently launched Facebook and Twitter pages to provide the community with information about local emergencies, training classes, and chapter events, as well as photos of chapter activities.

“We are very excited about the Twitter and Facebook pages,” said Dawn Leaks, assistant director of Chapter Support. “They allow us to interact with the public in a way that wasn’t possible before. Our fans and followers are responsive to our posts and appreciate the information we share.”

But that sort of activity is a far cry from, as Pilch explained, doctors and medical offices using social media to engage the public in a health dialogue. Tapestry Health comes close, sharing with roughly 450 Twitter followers a steady stream of health-related links, photos from recent events, and information about screenings and local public-health issues, but there’s little dialogue; the conversation is essentially one-way.

Missing the Boat

Tapestry, of course, has long emphasized the education component of its services, which makes it a natural candidate for becoming involved in social media. That’s exactly the quality that’s lacking in most medical offices, Garvey said.

“Some health care groups are out there running seminars in a particular service, but not many,” he said. “Most are not engaged in that type of community building. They advertise, but they’re not geared for health education” — so they’re not likely to educate on the Internet, either.

There’s also the issue of who controls the online message, Pilch said.

“These are important and valuable communication tools, but a lot of homework needs to be done before you get out there and set up a Facebook page or get on Twitter — especially if it’s a large organization with many departments.”

In such a scenario, she said, one of the dangers is allowing multiple employees or departments to post or exchange material without oversight, which can lead to contradictory information.

“If you’re sending out disjointed messages from various sources, it can be confusing and even antagonizing to the public,” she said.

In addition, she added, attitude counts when creating a Facebook or Twitter page for sharing health information.

“You have to keep in mind that social media is a communications channel used to build relationships with your patients, your clients, your customers, whatever is relevant,” Pilch said. “It’s not a platform to preach. If it’s used subtly and correctly, you can use it to educate, but you have to be careful about the message. If you come across as preachy, people go away. It’s easy to unfriend, unfan, unfollow, disconnect.”

These questions and guidelines can pile up and seem daunting to health care providers that have always trumpeted their services in one way — static ads and Web sites — and are now faced with a brave new world of interactive marketing. But the tide could shift soon, Garvey said, if only because it makes too much sense not to take advantage of social media.

“With health care, ‘toe in the water’ isn’t even appropriate. They’re not engaged at all,” he said. “But, given the fact that this is such a huge resource, it’s hard to understand why they’re not.”

Comments are closed.