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The Health Giants Are Coming! What's a Doc to Do?

Last year, hospitals, foundations, drug companies, and other large healthcare organizations were confused and bewildered by social media. Most could not understand why healthcare providers...

Last year, hospitals, foundations, drug companies, and other large healthcare organizations were confused and bewildered by social media. Most could not understand why healthcare providers, patients, and others were using social media to exchange information, opinions, and advice. A few even felt threatened and confused by the changes blogs, social networks, and online bulletin boards were spurring in the healthcare industry.

Today, while many large healthcare organizations are still on the social media sidelines, a few are making the move from

spectator to active participant. How Are Health Behemoths Utilizing Social Media? Paul Levy, president and CEO of Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and author of the popular blog Running A Hospital, does not believe the healthcare industry is well-prepared to participate in social media. In a July 2007 interview published on Diva Marketing Blog, he said that because health “is not a field that encourages open expression of feelings and positions,” social media will take awhile to gain traction.

Despite Levy’s pessimism, a number of large companies and organizations are embracing social media. In July 2006, healthcare giant Johnson & Johnson (J&J) launched Kilmer House, a blog focusing on the company’s history. J&J followed Kilmer House nearly a year later with JNJ BTW, written by one of its corporate communications executives and designed to highlight news about the company. From May to June 2007, they produced a blog to “expand the conversation” about the country’s preparedness for a flu pandemic. While the blog generated significant online dialog, some felt the government was not doing enough to respond to citizens’ questions and concerns on the blog.

The American Medical Association (AMA) has launched an alliance with the physician social network Sermo. According to Sermo, the partnership was developed to “help create a direct line of communication between US physicians and AMA leadership.”

What Are They Hoping To Achieve?

Large health organizations are participating in social media for a variety of reasons. Most significantly, they are seeking to:

• Speak Directly With Their Stakeholders - Blogs, podcasts, and other forms of social media allow government agencies and corporations to communicate with their stakeholders. However, they must work hard to overcome the inherent distrust many have of their motives and public statements.

• Market Directly to Physicians and Patients - Pharmaceutical companies, managed care organizations, and other powerful entities view social media as another means of marketing to the public. However, given the culture of openness, transparency, and fl exibility prized in the blogosphere and other segments of the social media community, these organizations are being forced to re-write their marketing playbooks.

• Tap Into the Wisdom of Crowds - Some health organizations are using social media to gain insights and information from the masses in new ways. According to the blog Xconomy Kendall Square, Sermo is very close to inking deals with pharmaceutical companies hungry to tap into physicians’ opinions about their drugs.

What Does This Mean for Physicians?

Drug firms are seeking new ways to glean information about their products from physicians. Look for social media properties catering to physicians to mine and share market research data with pharmaceutical companies. Public relations (PR) professionals are seeking new methods of spreading the word about their clients’ products, services, and issues. As physician blogging becomes more popular, PR firms will contact doctor bloggers hoping they will share information with their readers. When the audience for select physician blogs reaches a certain threshold, corporate advertisers will come knocking. For example, Dr. Kevin Pho, who writes the popular blog Kevin MD, regularly publishes advertisements touting his sponsors. These are only a handful of the numerous ways that large organizations’ use of social media will influence physicians. Clearly, the days of health behemoths viewing social media with skepticism are quickly drawing to a close.

Fard Johnmar is the founder of Envision Solutions, LLC, a full-service healthcare marketing communications consulting firm.