Do healthcare and social media mix?

Given the furious ascent of social media as a cultural and business phenomenon, many healthcare leaders are taking another look at their patient communications strategies. Where does it make sense to use social media with patients? Which patients are most open to social media as a vehicle for delivering information about their health? With consumers friending their favorite cereal brands on Facebook, and following their local Groupon group on Twitter to receive discounts, social media would seem to deserve a place in the world of healthcare.

Or not.

A recent Capstrat-Public Policy Polling survey finds that Americans still rely on traditional lines of communication when they need specific health consultation from their own providers. In our poll, nearly five of every six respondents – 84 percent – said they would not use social media for medical communication if their doctors offered it. Instant messaging (73 percent) and  private online forums (54 percent) were met with similar levels of disapproval.

Among Millennials, those 18- to 29- year-olds who can be reliably depended upon to embrace social media in virtually any  situation, there were some modestly encouraging signs. Forty-three percent indicated that they would take advantage of social media if offered by their doctor. Still, 44 percent said they wouldn’t. Not exactly a slam-dunk case for more investment in social media strategies.

While social media remains off limits, Americans are much more open to incorporating digital communications in the healthcare experience. Fifty-two percent indicated that they would be open to conferring with their doctor over email. Half would be open to accessing their medical records online. And 55 percent say they would solicit online advice from nurses.

For healthcare leaders, a quick scan of these mixed signals might lead to the conclusion that they should invest their time and resources in building out their online communications efforts, and take a wait-and-see approach to social media. But that’s a dangerous tack in the world of online and social media, where everything can change in a matter of months. Providers need to be ready to move quickly once the tide turns and segments of their patient population start looking for ways to engage through social media. Just because they’re not asking for these types of interactions today doesn’t mean they won’t soon. Many believe it’s just a matter of time.

If you’re wondering where to start, remember that social media isn’t just something you use externally with patients and other stakeholders. Social media tools hold a lot of promise for internal applications – and that’s a good place to get underway. Using social media tools, your own employees can begin working across long-standing organizational barriers and silos to work more efficiently. Different groups can come together easily to innovate in areas that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. Just as social media has made the world seem smaller, it can make your organization seem smaller, too – in a good way.

So start testing social media approaches with internal audiences. Along the way, your team will develop competencies that will be important when it’s time to roll out a patient-facing social media strategy. Security. Risk. Governance. While the audiences may be different, the challenges in key areas like these are similar, and in some cases they’re identical.

When patients eventually start clamoring for social media tools to complement their care experience, your organization can build on templates developed for internal audiences – and get a head start on the competition. Even more important, you’ll be prepared to communicate with patients on their terms. In a world where nobody can predict what twists and turns the path to social media adoption will take in the next few months (much less years), healthcare providers can’t afford to sit on the sidelines and wait this one out.