How social media can impact healthcare in the right – and wrong - ways

By Heather Mack
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The power of social media for spreading information, creating community and growing business is undeniable, and it has also proven to be a valuable tool in healthcare in instances like sharing resources between research organizations, taking a pulse on consumers’ experiences with a new device, or recruiting participants for a clinical trial.

But how do healthcare practitioners approach the popular communication medium while also protecting themselves and their patients? During HIMSS17 last week in Orlando, a few early healthcare social media adopters gave some pointers.

“Social media is where our patients, customers, consumers as well as our colleagues are, and that’s where we need to be,” said Dr. Kevin Campbell, a North Carolina cardiologist who is also the official medical expert at his local CBS affiliated television station and a frequent on-air contributor to Fox News. “But we have to apply social media in healthcare while ensuring compliance with stringent regulations around communications content from the FDA as well as HIPAA.”

Michael Rutty, the subject matter expert for information archiving at Actiance, echoed that concern.

“With these new mediums and channels communication come new risks,” Rutty said. “Healthcare and financial services are the most regulated and will continue to be so, and with the complexity of health laws and patient privacy, data protection will remain in the spotlight. So as we look at these new opportunities, we need to also be thinking about active management of the new data. We have to build out the IT and compliance to evaluate the new risks of tools.”

While using social media in healthcare requires some key considerations and etiquette unlike other industries, it can also be leveraged to drive patient engagement, grow a practice, or wield influence in a particular field. An easy example of where social media is useful is simply getting the word out about a device or treatment that patients may not know about otherwise, or to share research with colleagues.

“These are some of the most effective tools. Twitter: You have very little time to say something of importance and then link to an article, link to YouTube video, link to something of importance and interest to your patients,” Campbell said. “I think Facebook Live is an effective tool to teach colleagues, to teach patients, to provide patients with access to information they might not have. Sometimes I see patients in very rural, poor areas, and it may difficult for those patients to even realize that there is something like an insulin pump available for type 1 diabetes. They have no idea. But through things like Facebook Live or blogging, you can actually get important information out to your audience.”

While doctors have historically been the laggers in adopting new communications technology for fear of legal repercussions, patients will most likely embrace their presence on social media as a trusted voice, Campbell said, and other players of the healthcare industry can use social media to create a human and trustworthy image as well.

“There are a number of ways you can meaningfully use social media,” he said. “Remember who your consumers or customers trust – which is physicians. Certainly, physicians need to remain a trusted person, but so too can hospitals, so can health insurers, and, believe it or not, so can pharmaceutical companies. They can repair the reputation put out there by the Martin Shkrelis and Heather Bresches of the world.”

However, to do that without breaking any laws requires some care.

“There are a number of ways you can measure meaningful use, of sorts, with social media,” Campbell said. “You can engage directly via social media with your patients about care, but don’t engage in a doctor-patient relationship. Do not develop a legal duty to that patient. But, for example, you can talk about a specific condition like leukemia and say there is a treatment at the University of Pennsylvania, and you could mention those types of patients should reach out to them.”

Doctors can also use social media to teach – such as via a link to a YouTube video or Facebook Live –  and provide timely and credible education, or as a consultant to colleagues. Additionally, doctors can use it to market themselves.

“It’s not how much you talk, but the content of what you say, and where and when,” said Campbell. “For example, say you are at a big meeting or conference and you have 14 tweets, but then it is mentioned or retweeted several thousand times. That’s influence.”

For those looking to grow their business, whether they are a vendor, physician or payer, Campbell advised using Twitter. His point of reference for impact was actually a false tweet about an attack on President Obama from a hacked Associated Press account, but it was notable in that it had an immediate impact on the Dow Jones industrial average.

“Even though that was a false tweet, you can see the immediate impact –Twitter can move markets,” Campbell said. “Think about that in terms of impacting healthcare, impacting patients, impacting families. Having people understand, you're not alone with diabetes, you're not alone with your cardiomyopathy. There are patients like you and treatments available.”

Building on that, Campbell shared how social media can be used to help patients who couldn’t otherwise attend support groups or meetings. Doctors can hold a live Twitter chat instead, or read comments from patients on their own blogs or Facebook pages to learn more about the patient experience.

“All of this is at our fingertips,” said Campbell. “Seventy-five percent of people who access Twitter access it daily on their phone. Mobile is where it is at for communication, and it will soon be the same in healthcare.”