Bedside Manner 2.0: Social Media's New Role in Health Care

Tweeting, friending, blogging, posting. These certainly aren’t your typical medical terms, but hearing them in clinics and hospitals is becoming as common as getting a flu shot or coming in for a check-up.

As medical advances change the way we think about health every day, revelations in technology are shaping the way health care providers connect with consumers, and vice versa. In the old days—the late 1990s and early 2000s—the internet served as our post-Yellow Pages tool for clinic locations, hours, service offerings and more. Fast forward to the world of social media, and health care providers are sending out information to our virtual doorsteps via Facebook, Twitter and blogs.

“If it’s interesting and if it’s relevant to consumers then we send it their way,” says Steve Van Dinter, regional director of media relations and public affairs at SSM and spokesperson for St. Mary’s Hospital. He and Catherine Showers, St. Mary’s internet marketing coordinator, manage a Twitter account, three Facebook pages, a text-messaging campaign for cellular devices and a YouTube account through St. Mary’s. Van Dinter says that social networking sites have “opened doors” for patients seeking answers.

“Social media is a two-way street,” he says. “It’s not advertising, it’s having a
conversation.”

Those conversations are happening all over the web, all the time, as health care providers in Madison are signing in and chatting with patients on everything from the latest physical therapy treatments to germ-fighting tips during back-to-school season. And the new formats are quickly delivered and easy to read, as convenience is key. But how much is too much? Isn’t there such a thing as information overload, even when it comes to your health?

“It’s a balance,” says Van Dinter. “You don’t want to push out too much because then you get lost in a flood of tweets and messages. We update at least once a day, usually two or three times. If we can get the gist out, we’ve done our job.”

For UW Health, it’s all about “spurring dialogue” with patients. Becky Broering, director of the e-health innovation office, believes social media is critical for effective customer service.

“It’s important to be where your audience is. With social media you have an opportunity to have conversations. Any time you are actually interacting it will help build loyalty,” says Broering, adding that social media has allowed the sprawling operation to respond to people in a way they could not before. For example, UW Health tweets live from educational panels, lectures and forums, so those who are unable to attend can still catch tidbits and highlights from the event in real time.

Social media allows for fun and friendly discourse with patients, too. Madison Women’s Health’s Facebook page asks fans to make suggestions for improving the clinic waiting room by hosting discussions on topics such as the selection of magazines for visitors. UW Health’s organ donor mascot Dottie Donor Dot has her own fan page on Facebook and Meriter offers an interactive “Find a Doctor” tool.

Meriter also has posted videos of doctors discussing medical relief trips to Haiti, groundbreaking ceremonies in the clinic and a visit from Governor Jim Doyle on its YouTube account. Meriter’s marketing strategy and e-health manager Stacey Hartmann cites the hospital and clinic’s two main objectives of social media: “First is current news, making sure people feel they are getting information to be proactive.” The second goal is to promote Meriter’s own events such as classes and lecture series, however, “promotion is secondary to helping people make good health choices.”

The power of social media is not waning. It’s growing stronger with each tweet. The Wisconsin State Journal recently reported that Facebook hosts 1.9 million users in the state, or one-third of Wisconsin’s population. As for the future of social networks and health care?

Van Dinter is keeping his eye on “geo-locating” tools (like Foursquare) that allow the user to identify where followers are stationed by where they are located when they’re using their stationary or mobile device. Imagine checking Twitter on your iPhone while lounging on the beach. You may just get a tweet from your health care provider back home offering a friendly reminder to slather on that oxybenzone-free SPF 50.

– Hannah Kiddoo

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