Social Media: Healthcare's Proving Ground

December 15, 2009
MDNG Editors

MDNG Primary Care, August 2009, Volume 11, Issue 8

Phil Baumann, a registered nurse, blogger, owner of brand Web presence consulting firm CareAdvocate, and author of "140 Healthcare Uses for Twitter" explains why he thinks social media is important in healthcare, and offers advice for physicians who want to use these tools in their practice.

Twitter has exploded in popularity since its creation in 2006, and for a while, Phil Baumann—a registered nurse, blogger, and owner of CareVocate, a consulting firm that “provides strategic guidance for optimizing brand Web presence”—had been trying to define Twitter’s role in the healthcare space. “So I sat down one afternoon and just hammered out my thoughts on how to use Twitter in an ideal world,” Baumann says.

Those thoughts turned into “140 Healthcare Uses for Twitter,” a self-explanatory blog post that was also a call for the healthcare industry to become a leading player in the world of micro-sharing. The post received major attention in the healthcare industry (just Google the title), and more than 1,000 people began following Baumann on Twitter shortly after it was posted.

MDNG

also took notice. We spoke with Baumann not only about Twitter, but social media as a whole and its effect on healthcare.

What does the term “social media” mean to you?

Nothing new, really. Online, it simply refers to the re-purposing of hyperlinks and Web protocols and interfaces from one-way content publishing to multi-directional networking between people. The last century was about mass assembly, mass distribution, and mass unilateral communication. Entire marketing models were built on those realities. Today, the Web is pulling the rug out from under those models.

The Web has opened up novel ways for social relationships to form, evolve, grow, and refine. The Web is a new arrival to our world, and it’s only been around for several thousand days. So, it’s important to understand this ever-growing superorganism. How has the boom of social media affected the healthcare industry? Healthcare and technology have always had a unique relationship with each other. Both in healthcare and technology, what starts out with one purpose eventually is re-purposed for something else, and usually something unpredictable. If any industry should understand the fundamental relationship between us and technology, it’s healthcare.

However, healthcare has been uneven in its technological adoptions. On one hand, the healthcare industry employs some of the most sophisticated technologies— from PET scans to genetic therapy—but when it comes to the social Web, however, many facilities haven’t fully embraced the opportunities it presents.

How does online media relate to healthcare?

Providers have an almost endless array of opportunities through which to connect with their stakeholders. Certainly, there are risks and dangers and costs. But surgeons don’t refuse to perform surgery just because there are life-threatening risks anytime you incise beneath the skin. For too long, providers have given more permission to their fears than their curiosity and passion to be remarkable online. As a nurse, I certainly appreciate their position—lack of time, etc. Nonetheless, I think it’s time providers become more Web literate. And social media is a part of that literacy process.

How do you get non-social media users in healthcare to understand how the tools can benefit providers?

The hardest thing for non-social media users to understand is: “What is this stuff and what does it have to do with me?” There are two dimensions to social media. The first is technological— learning the ins and outs of the tools themselves, setting up a blog or using Twitter or Facebook, etc. None of it is hard. In fact, once you start tinkering around and discovering other people from whom you can learn, the process of learning takes off very quickly.

The second dimension is philosophical. That is, you have to understand why and how social technologies are changing our world. The changes are profound, and they are upturning the ecosystems surrounding individuals and organizations. Before the Internet, finding and connecting with customers was an expensive proposition, and it became mechanical, painful, and frustrating. Now, you can connect directly. There’s no need to solely rely on focus groups and multi-million dollar consulting fees to know what’s going on in your market.

Where are some good places to begin for physicians who are looking to get involved in social media?

My suggestion is to sign up on your own and read blogs on social media. Learn about RSS, because it will help the Web come to you as opposed to spending all day on Google; I recommend Google Reader (www.google.com/reader). I’d recommend reading Chris Brogan’s blog Chris Brogan is President of New Marketing Labs, a new media marketing agency, and co-founder of the PodCamp new media conference series].

What are the limitations of social media use in healthcare?

Obviously in healthcare and pharma, HIPAA poses challenges. I don’t think it rules out using social media—far from it. Organizations need to learn these tools, understand their place in our world, and fully appreciate the growing hunger among patients for providers to be present for them. If I were speaking with a CEO or CNO, I’d say, “Let’s spend an hour together on these sites so you can get a first-hand look and feel of what’s going on.”

My suggestion for organizations is to reach out to their own in-house resources and ask them for their help. If I may be so bold, I’d also look outside of the healthcare industry, since healthcare is behind the times in terms of social media.

Do you sense a growing digital divide between tech-savvy physicians and patients and their techno-phobic counterparts?

Yes, there is a growing tech-divide, not just in healthcare, but in general. Doctors and nurses are busy. With what little spare time they have, the last thing many of them want to do is learn about Web technologies, how a Web page works, how search engines work, how blogs work, or how to make sense of a frivolous thing like Twitter. I completely appreciate the root of this divide. It is, however, becoming very expensive personally and professionally to be Web illiterate. Soon, the education medical professionals receive will be Webbased and Web-enhanced, no doubt about it. In fact, social media education is probably the next biggest step in learning. I know many tech-savvy docs, and it’s not necessarily an age-related issue. I know a doctor in his eighties who knows more about online technologies than most 25-year-olds. And yet, I do think there is a generational component that explains the divide.

What do you think is needed to reach the tipping point, where healthcare transforms from a techambiguous field into one that’s perceived as being being on the leading edge?

Practice. That’s what providers need. Their time may be scarce, but it’s so important for them to figure this stuff out. My recommendation to old-fashioned providers is to find someone decently savvy, take them out to lunch, and ask for a few hours of their time. Believe me, within a week’s time, you’ll be a superstar... and hopelessly addicted to Twitter!

Social Media and what it Means to You (according to Phil)

Since you don’t own Twitter, or Facebook, or YouTube, or any other social networking medium, the only “property” of which you have full ownership is your blog. This is important (and has recently been overlooked as the frenzied fl ocking to Twitter has increased). Blogs require discipline and knowledge about how the Web works, and these are key characteristics of successful, long-term engagement in social media. What’s the value of a blog? It’s where you get to tell your story, share useful information about your organization, develop a community (no matter how small) of devoted followers who can spread the word about what you do…and Google still loves blogs.

When I search for your brand, what comes up on Google? Does your website come up, your competitor’s, or some fl y-by-night operation that hijacked your keywords? Imagine if more hospitals had been blogging for the last ten years. Imagine the rankings in Google. That time has been wasted by many organizations who are just now realizing the Web isn’t going away and that it’s not a passing fad.

YouTube

Since video is one of the quickest, easiest, and most engaging ways to learn, YouTube (which is really a search engine) confers several benefits. It’s a place where facilities can provide quality healthcare information that can then be shared by interested parties to their friends and family. Since YouTube ranks high in Google, I recommend filling the information panel with the relevant content (keywords and useful description of the videos), since that’s how Google will help you connect with the people who are searching for what you have to offer.

Flickr

I’m not too sure that Flickr is the strongest place for a company to be, but I certainly would have a presence there. Again, just like YouTube, providing useful images with relevant text can have some search engine value, as well as humanize your organization by having a photo stream of the events that you experience.

Twitter

I think of Twitter as telepathy. You can instantly convey your thoughts, ideas, and links to other brains at the speed of light. I think Twitter—or rather the platform of microsharing that I think will eventually be an open protocol much like e-mail today—is a remarkable permissionbased way to re-humanize corporate communications. But, I also think there is tremendous value inherent in microblogging for internal deployment.

Facebook

Facebook is the largest social network in the world, and it’s growing daily. In my opinion, Facebook’s user interface isn’t very friendly, and I think it has a long way to go in that regard (however, its recent acquisition of FriendFeed, which brings to Facebook some of the brightest engineers in Silicon Valley, may radically change that). Having a public profile on Facebook makes a lot of sense, because: a) millions of people are using Facebook to connect with brands, and b) it’s an inexpensive way to create social networking communities not only for your brand, but also for the specific projects and events that need community engagement.

Phil’s Faves

Twitter

Twitter is 99% entertainment, and yet the 1% that is “serious” has provided me with priceless content and connections. There is so much that I have learned, and so many smart people from all industries, that I never would have discovered without Twitter. And yet, Twitter isn’t the be-all-endall. It’s just a simple stream that I dip in and out of.

FriendFeed

FriendFeed [a service that creates a “feed made up of the content that your friends shared” through various online tools] never caught on with the mainstream. Even though FriendFeed’s future is in doubt, I think the real-time technologies the engineers brought forth will be the future of online activity. It may take a few years, but I’m betting that we’ll see social media move in a direction toward providing meaningful aggregations of social content.

The good old fashioned blog

I enjoy blogging because it’s where I can express what I want, whenever I want. That’s not something I can say about any other social medium. But blogging today isn’t what it was five or ten years ago. It has matured, and I’ve been experimenting with integrating my blog with other “real-time” networks. It’s something I call “distributed life-streaming.” This means that I can have conversations across the Web and still be able to integrate those conversations into my blog. That’s a powerful tool.