Healthcare, Social Media and Remarkability

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Healthcare is one of the most important topics of our time. From healthcare reform to technological advances, to the ethics of confronting death, the public discussion about healthcare has no shortage of passionate conversation.

Meanwhile, blogs and social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter have garnered much attention in recent years. As more of us turn to social media, the need to figure out the proper relationship between healthcare and social media will increasingly be part of the discussion. So just what are the promises of new media within the context of healthcare and why should the healthcare industry care about the proliferation of newer media?

Whatever the future of healthcare and whatever opposing opinions we have about its economics, one word we should use when referencing healthcare is remarkable. That is, we must have the kind of healthcare that is so good that people speak about it glowingly. Not an easy task for sure. And social media won’t replace the hard work we all must do but it can play an important part in solving some of the problems we confront today. So let’s take a brief survey of the history of media to better understand how healthcare can use social media.

Health is social, social is health

Since health is the epitome of life and our lives depend on the success of how we collaborate and get along and support each other, the social component of any healthcare is vital to its value. No, this isn’t a political reference to socialism, just an observation about the important relationship between the sate of our biological health and our daily exchanges with other human beings.

I can’t think of a single step within the provision of healthcare that doesn’t have a social component. From patient-provider relationships to professional collaboration, every transaction involves social interaction. When those relationships break, there is less of a chance for remarkable healthcare to be provided. Likewise, when those relationships are enhanced and clearer and more effective, the opportunities for quality healthcare can only increase.

Now since every social relationship needs a medium to transpire and evolve, the kind of media we select has everything to do with how well we conduct our relationships and achieve our goals in healthcare.

Healthcare: from traditional to new media

Historically the primary medium of healthcare has been face-to-face contact. The doctor came to your home or saw you in a hospital or on the battlefield and tended to patients by direct sensory assessment and touch. The entire communication model of the medical profession evolved around this intimate real-time physical setting: it’s formed the basis for boundary-setting and the tone of the relationship between patient and provider.

But as communication technologies advanced, novel collaborative approaches arose – and all industries adopted their own uses for them. Of course, doctors, nurses and healthcare facilities never viewed themselves as media entities. They provided specific services under highly specialized conditions. Yet healthcare professionals must be outstanding users of media because clear and responsible communication is a cornerstone of remarkable healthcare.

Today, however, we are part of a rapidly changing landscape of social interaction. Last century’s media were largely limited in their capacity for social exchanges. Perhaps the telephone was the most widely used intimately social technology.

With the advent of Web came the potential of mass inter-connection. Although the primitive Web offered little by way of elaborate social interaction, the underlying framework for social media was laid in the foundation. Fast forward to the present where platforms like Facebook and Twitter allow information sharing and experiences within a novel background of either ambient or direct intimacy in real-time.

It is this new background – or medium – of intimacy and collaboration to which our attention to healthcare must be addressed. The latest social media offer different arrangements of social conditions than do face-to-face interactions.

Just as the printing press ushered forth new opportunities for replicating and spreading ideas that radically changed the world, so too do real-time, two-way communication technologies pose threats to status quo worlds. It is tempting to try to port how we do things face-to-face into blogs or Facebook or Twitter or any other medium, but it may be more productive to better understand the opportunities and challenges that these media pose for healthcare.

New technologies produce new ways of seeing the world. As such, they provide opportunities to solve old problems and make new ones. Individuals and organizations which can adapt themselves during radical change are more likely to survive upheavals. The same can be said of the entire healthcare industry – from hospitals to pharmaceutical companies to medical device manufacturers.

Healthcare’s baby steps in social media

Inasmuch as healthcare sometimes rides on the cutting edge of technological innovation, as a general rule the industry tends to lag behind other industries when it comes to staying current. Contributing factors include traditionally conservative cultural traits (the principles of safety and consistency), difficulties with funding and the nature of a mostly round-the-clock environment (at least as far as clinical operations are concerned). Case in point: 90% of hospitals in the United States still use paper as the medium for health records and communication. Seventeen years after the invention of the Web browser and paper is still the predominant medium in one of our most critical industries. Think about that for bit.

Until very recently, many hospitals in the U.S. have had very little online presences. Even today, many hospital Web sites are dated in their functionalities: they tend to be static pages with hardly any utility to patients, professionals or employees except for a physical address, a list of services and references to public accolades. All fine and well, but terribly short on “service with a smile.” And when it comes to social media, only a “few hundred” of the thousands of hospitals in the country have even spates of presences.

Of course, healthcare organizations have unique challenges facing them: HIPAA, patient dignity, litigation, etc. These are by no means small difficulties. And yet those challenges do not diminish the needs and demands of patients eager for contact with their providers and facilities. Thus the pressure on healthcare organizations is especially robust, the problems difficult and the solutions hard to come by using orthodox practices.

Unfortunately, a common reaction by some hospitals has been mostly one of two: 1) dismiss the reality of online social networks as valid media for patients and professionals to access them or 2) to recoil from any sincere efforts to take on and overcome the challenges that face them. Organizational fear is a real force to be reckoned with. It takes a strong sense of vision and leadership to work beyond that fear. In an industry where being a follower of life-saving rules is paramount; being a leader can be risky to say the least.

Fortunately, there have been a few individuals and organizations that have overcome the fear-factor and taken the lead in getting the industry to be remarkable online. Ed Bennett of the University of Maryland Medial System and Lee Aase of Mayo Clinic exemplify this sort of leadership. There are other wonderful leaders, but the industry as a whole has a long way to go. Therefore even baby steps are greatly appreciated by patients longing for simple connections via social media.

Yes, social media are a fad. It’s a buzz phrase. But it’s also a part of our lives that will never go away. The book, telephone, radio and television all were fads in their first stages.

But just as social media has a role in entertainment, so too must it have a role in the entire provision of our healthcare, one way or another. We can’t live the rest of our lives expecting healthcare to be relegated to historical traditions. That’s just absurd. But it’s worse than absurd: it’s costly, in dollars and in lives.

Tips for adoption: context is king

In blogging and speaking with organizations about social media, I’ve uncovered one theme: frameworks. It’s how concepts are framed that determines the influence of their message. For example, if I frame Twitter as a way for friends to share pictures of their drunken selves, no executive in her right mind will see any business value in that. On the other hand, I could frame Twitter as a way to lead a community, to highlight important updates to stakeholders or to provide swift customer services. If I frame these new media in that context, then it’s much easier to illustrate their value. Context is indeed king.

Another frame important in new media adoption is cost. One of the key features of social media is their cost of barrier to entry: anyone can enter the public sphere with minimal financial cost. Time is perhaps the most intensive investment, but if people value something enough, they’ll invest their time and attention. What businesses in general – and healthcare enterprises in particular – need to understand is this: in a world where the cost of producing media is practically zero and when anyone in the world can instantly express themselves to a wide global or local base,everybody becomes a media entity. And it’s this simple truth – that we are all media companies now – which organizations must appreciate.

It’s easy to cling to old habits and painful to change in uncertain and dangerous times. But the seduction of safety bears a heavy opportunity cost. When your competitors overcome their fears, intelligently claim their place in a fast-emerging new world and draw the attention of your customers, you undermine the drive of your going concern. And your competition doesn’t always come from within your industry.

So, what are some of the baby steps healthcare enterprises can do in social media? Rather than offering only abstractions, here are some practical teasers:

• Blogs provide a base camp for organizations to publish up-to-date, Google-friendly content, promote community engagement and establish trust as a caring partner for patients and family. Blogs require diligence, focus, time and passion. They return attention, engagement, feedback and trusted status.

• Twitter offers an unparalleled ambient intimacy for instant connection with the public and for the interactive dissemination of critical information. It requires attention, personality, persistence and relevance. It returns immediate feedback, gratitude for human connection and easy-to-find information related to your industry and trends.

• YouTube offers a simple and cost-effective public platform for telling your story in a palpable way, educating patients about anxiety-provoking treatments and offering a human face to an otherwise faceless organization. It requires some very basic audio-visual equipment and a willingness to be candid. It returns a platform for offering practical value to patients and family members who gratefully acknowledge a helping hand in a dark time. That’s priceless.

The same kind of reasoning can be applied along the array of current social media. We’re all still learning how to make the best of these technologies and how to build and cultivate communities. But much of this terrain is new and demands a situational approach based on cultural values and problem-solving skills. That’s part of the beauty of using these media: you get to choose how to use them as you see fit. You may not have control over your message anymore, but you do get to control how you tell people what you’re doing. If you’re doing the right things, people will tell your story for you if you enable and abet them with the tools to do so.

It may be easy to sign up for a Twitter or Facebook account but producing quality content and engaging every day in remarkable ways involves dedicated hard work. You not only have to avail yourselves to the ever-changing technologies, you must always understand your purposes and communities, be willing to change how you see the world, involve people from all over your organization and muster the courage to make mistakes and be smart enough to learn.

Organizations have much to learn and would benefit from investigating new media, understanding what they can do and reflecting on the best way to enter the stream of public conversation. Although the business value of external-facing social media may be obscure at first, once leaders have a personal understanding of these tools and communities, pieces of the puzzle assemble rather quickly. Furthermore, for all of the talk about public social media, organizations must also consider internal social media as a way to extract value. Clinical collaboration technologies have a long way to go and those organizations which invest internally in collaboration will realize enormous intrinsic gains in productivity, performance and cost.

The future with a healthy human Web

The demand for healthcare organizations to be present online will continue to grow. Doctors and nurses are also seeing the benefits of collaborative technologies and want their employers to support efforts to come into the 21st Century. If you want to know what some really smart and savvy nurses are doing in this space take a look at what’s happening on RNchat, a Twitter conversation I started recently to help give nurses a voice. If you want to know what healthcare marketers are doing in this space, see what’s going on here. Passionate conversations about healthcare and social media have begun. If you run any kind of healthcare enterprise, I encourage you to listen and to participate.

The future of healthcare is wide open. The future of social technologies is wide open. So too are the dangers and opportunities which the expanding Web will continue to throw our way. Regardless of what the future holds, the eternal truth of our species is simple: people need people. If social media has any value in healthcare, it’s the humanization of how we connect and collaborate. Nothing will replace a palm on the back of a hand. But the Web is here to stay and we must ensure it remains as human as possible. We don’t have much time.


Phil Baumann is a registered nurse and is President of CareVocate LLC. He blogs about online technologies and their intersection with healthcare at On Twitter he’s @PhilBaumann.

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