Perhaps organizations’ greatest fear of social media is losing control of
the conversation. Highlighting the positives and managing the negatives
are skills every organization must learn.
SOCIAL MEDIA REFERS broadly to Web-based tools that allow individuals to communicate quickly, easily, and broadly.
Current popular social media sites include Twitter, Facebook,
LinkedIn, and YouTube; in addition, millions of individuals
publish their thoughts and interests through blogs. The days
are gone when mass communication belonged to mainstream
print, television, and radio companies.
Social media represents a brave new world for healthcare.
It offers a venue for communicating with consumers quickly
and inexpensively, such as promoting new wellness programs,
marketing new services, and announcing the latest achievements in patient care. It also presents challenges, including
risks to information accuracy, organizational reputation, and
Establishing appropriate staff use of social media through
policies, position statements, and guidelines is an essential
first step in mitigating the risks. Most importantly, organizations must educate staff and closely monitor the social media
channels they sponsor.
Growing Use in Healthcare
Many healthcare organizations are using social media to en-
gage with patients and consumers. One organization to em-
brace it wholeheartedly is the Mayo Clinic, whose Center for
Social Media has a stated mission to “lead the social media
revolution in healthcare, contributing to health and well be-
ing for people everywhere.”
Mayo Clinic actively uses YouTube, Facebook, and blogs. It
has more than 100,000 followers on Twitter, where on a typi-
cal day in February it published an announcement of a major
philanthropic gift, a link to a video tour of its Florida facilities,
and inspirational quotes. Its “Sharing Mayo Clinic” blog pres-
ents “stories from patients, families, friends, and Mayo Clinic
The primary focus for most organizations’ social media pro-
grams is marketing and communications. Social media is
moving people away from a reliance on advertising in mak-
ing purchasing decisions; consumers are relying more on the
information they find online. For healthcare, this becomes in-
creasingly relevant as the public has access to quality and cost
Consumers also are using the opinions they find online to
inform their purchases. Companies are using social media to
market their messages and encourage their customers to promote their products and services. Healthcare organizations
that offer a venue for patients to share their positive experiences and personal stories can send a powerful message to consumers who are determining where to obtain their healthcare
Healthcare organizations also use social media to communicate their mission and vision, describe the services they
offer, and provide health education. Some organizations use
social media to promote wellness and sponsor online support
forums where individuals who are dealing with chronic health
issues or catastrophic conditions can find support from others
who are having similar experiences. On some sites, physicians
and other clinicians educate the public on common diseases,
what can be done to cope with conditions, and how to maximize the quality of life for the individual who is suffering from
Many organizations use social media to encourage philanthropy. By publicizing their services, promoting patient advocacy, displaying credentials, and describing the tangible and
intangible community benefits they provide, organizations
can encourage benefactors to invest in their mission.
Finally, many organizations including healthcare are using
social media for recruitment. They advertise their available
positions and also search social media sites to determine the
integrity and trustworthiness of potential hires. Human resources departments must be fully aware of labor laws when
accessing social media on new hires or current employees.
Unintended Outcomes, Good and Bad
Perhaps the greatest fears organizations have about social media is the inability to control the conversation. People may say
bad things about the facility—true or not—that can damage its
reputation. At the same time, people may say very good things
that can promote the facility. Learning to highlight the positives and manage the negatives is imperative for any organization embarking on social media.
Some risks are internal. Employees, medical staff, contractors, or volunteers who use social media may not grasp its ability to publish comments far and wide. One incorrect or flippant remark can become indelible, reaching audiences who
lack the ability to read facial expressions or hear intonation.
They may not be able to discern something said in jest from
something said in earnest.
Improper descriptions or discussions of a patient case on social media could violate a patient’s privacy, even if no names
are used and no harm is intended.
Take for example a nurse who lives in a rural area and has a
frustrating experience with a patient one day. Coming home
she merely intends to blow off steam to friends by venting
about the situation on her Facebook page. Although she does
not divulge any protected health information, one of her Facebook friends recognizes the patient based on the description
and the situation. The friend is related to the patient and shares
the nurse’s comments. The patient is angry with the organiza-