Social media, a strategic tool for healthcare communication

Posted on April 8, 2010. Filed under: Public Relations, Social Media | Tags: , |

The healthcare industry faces social media challenges. Social media have changed the way in which health providers and pharmaceutical companies used to communicate with the public. Today consumers are able to follow health conferences in real time, develop a health story, search for information or share web links instantly. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media tools will play increasingly prominent roles as part of any healthcare communications plan.

Understanding the opportunities and challenges of these social networks as a strategic tool has become an essential part of comprehensive communications and marketing strategies for healthcare professionals. If you work in healthcare communication and you want to engage your community, increase potential business opportunities and build your reputation, you will need to go where your audience is and integrate the social media tools that best fit your goals with your traditional media efforts.

Opportunities offered by social networks in healthcare communication are widely known: low cost, big impact, direct communication, transparency and access to information, among others. But there are also some risks that need to be taken into account:

1. Legal and privacy concerns – Health information is sensitive information and its use or disclosure is regulated in many countries. Many hospitals and pharmaceutical companies worry about using social networking sites because of concerns over privacy and confidentiality. To minimize these concerns, some social media networking sites have been adding customizable privacy settings so that users can control who can see their profile or their personal information.

2. Reputational risks – If you are a healthcare or pharmaceutical professional, a logical concern you may have is that user-generated content may include complaints about adverse events, which may damage your corporate or brand reputation. Take into account that the dialog will happen with or without your participation and, if a crisis event arises, social media will give you the opportunity to act in a timely and appropriate manner.

An example of social medial use in health communication

There are many examples of healthcare companies and institutions that have embraced social media. I’ll refer briefly to the Hospital Clínic of Barcelona, a leading Spanish research and medical center I’ve had the opportunity to know during a recent internship at their Corporate Communications department. The Hospital Clínic of Barcelona is now progressively using social media to inform patients on health issues and to build a peer-to-peer relationship between patients and physicians. The Hospital has an open forum for patients, ForumClinic, as well as its own channel in Youtube and its own account in Twitter and Facebook. Their Health Communication Blog, published in three languages, provides meaningful healthcare information and support for users.

Marc De Semir, Director of Corporate Communications at Hospital Clínic of Barcelona explains the reasons behind their choice of taking advantage of these social media tools:

“For years we have been generating a huge amount of information based on the work of the doctors and the investigators at Hospital Clínic of Barcelona and August Pi i Sunyer Biomedical Research Institute (IDIBAPS). Our messages reached the population through the media, but we were losing the opportunity to keep in touch directly with people. Health is a major issue and lots of users are looking for reliable information on the net. We are willing to help them find answers, information sources and some orientation. We don’t want in any case to do the doctors’ job, but we try to offer serious and professional content.

Through our Blog, now we have the chance to answer questions and comments around the news we post in the media and online. All our stories are posted in the Blog, offering new content almost every day. These stories are also shown on our institutional websites and complemented with multimedia content that we share through our YouTube Channel.

We use Twitter to expand the messages posted on the Blog to a new way of sharing content. On the other hand, now we are willing to open our doors to LinkedIn and Facebook, where we plan to promote job opportunities and keep sharing content.

Finally, our main social media challenge is ForumClinic, an open forum for patients. Through ForumClinic, an initiative funded by Fundación BBVA, the doctors are the ones who interact with patients to solve questions and give them tools to manage their disease. It offers information about some chronic conditions, such as diabetes, breast cancer and hypertension, and gives patients a common space to share their experiences and thoughts.”

Not only healthcare institutions but also the pharmaceutical industry is making their way into social media. Companies like Novartis, Boehringer Ingelheim, Abbott, Genentech, Roche, GSK or Sanofi-Aventis are already using either Facebook, or YouTube or Twitter or all of them to reach their audience.

As independent consultant Christine McNab[1] says:

“Twitter and other social media tools might not bring health to all, but they can help to bring accurate health information to many more people than ever before. After all, one fact sheet or an emergency message about an outbreak can be spread through Twitter faster than any influenza virus. It’s an opportunity for health professionals to explore, listen and engage.”

In the exciting journey that is the web 2.0, those companies and organizations who chose to plunge into the social media sphere will find surprising cost-effective ways of building reputation, providing reliable information and joining the conversation. If you are thinking of getting started and you want to anticipate risks and maximize opportunities, just remember that a successful social media strategy always requires good planning, consistent execution and ongoing monitoring.

Amelia Rodríguez is the Team Leader in the Barcelona Dow Jones Media Lab. She holds a post-graduate degree in Scientific Journalism & Science Communication.


[1] McNab, Christine. What social media offers to health professionals and citizens. Bulletin of the World Health Organization 2009; 87:566-566. doi: 10.2471/BLT.09.066712

Available at http://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/87/8/09-066712/en/

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