Strengthening the Pulse of Social Media in Healthcare

Healthcare organizations are getting savvier at generating engagement and improving customer relationships with social media.
Customer Experience

Social media is becoming one of the most talked-about disruptors in the healthcare industry in decades. From a well-known insurer tweeting about emergency preparedness to a hospital system answering personal healthcare questions across multiple channels, social media is proving to be an undeniable force in healthcare.

That wasn't the case a few years ago when social media and healthcare were incongruent terms. However, the healthcare industry is beginning to embrace social media as a means for communicating with patients and driving brand awareness. At the same time, though, regulations and privacy concerns about the sharing of information in healthcare have never been higher. Healthcare providers, payers, and health systems have therefore become savvier at engaging consumers while abiding by privacy regulations.

Social media offers an opportunity for brands to engage consumers in conversations and strengthen customer relationships. However, companies must earn their customers' trust as a reliable source of information. Consumers traditionally lack loyalty to healthcare brands and often feel detached--even distrustful--of insurers. In fact, only 8 percent of consumers said they rely on their health insurers as a source of health and wellness, reported health optimization company Welltok in a survey of 1,000 consumers.

Additionally, consumers tend to only reach out to healthcare organizations when they need help, observes Yoni Ben-Yehuda, CMO at Blue Fountain Media, a marketing firm whose clients include Spine and Sports Medicine of New York. "Some of the biggest obstacles [for the healthcare industry] to overcome include genuinely connecting and engaging the audience before they need their services, and determining a strategy to showcase the positive and friendly side of a hospital or healthcare system," Ben-Yehuda maintains. "At the end of the day, your users may be active on social platforms like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, and they may fully grasp the importance of what your business does, however, a lot of those people don't want to communicate with you until they need to."

Health insurers are trying to turn these perceptions around by promptly responding to customers on social platforms and actively sharing helpful information. Cigna, for instance, has increased its focus on social media as a service and communications tool, explains Lori Feldman, global head of social media at Cigna. "As more people look to social and other digital channels for information, we've expanded our social presence from just Facebook and Twitter to multiple accounts and platforms like YouTube, Instagram, and LinkedIn and we try to create compelling and helpful information that meets our customers' needs," Feldman says.

Health education is a major focus and as an example, Feldman points to a current campaign promoting health check-ups. The campaign, "America, say 'ahhh,'" includes TV and radio ads that are tied to a microsite and messages on social media about the importance of getting an annual health exam. Additionally, a team of agents are on hand to answer questions on Cigna's social accounts and direct customers to the appropriate department.

Staying on top of the comments and questions that pour in from numerous social accounts and aligning those efforts with the company's other communication channels are among the largest challenges that the health insurer's social team faces, Feldman adds. "I don't think the challenges we face in moving forward with social media are unique to the health industry," she says. "It's about keeping up with the community and being nimble enough to provide the info people need when they need it, and on the devices they want it on."

The recent shooting at San Bernardino, Calif., for instance, triggered an emergency meeting between social media specialists and the communications team on what Cigna should do to help its members and the local community in San Bernardino as quickly as possible.

The day after the shooting occurred, Cigna put out messages on social media, its websites, and other touchpoints to inform the public that it had opened its telephone help line to anyone affected by the shooting. The phone lines are staffed with clinicians who are available to speak with people about how to cope with loss, anxiety, stress, or other issues related to gun violence.

"Over the last few years, we've seen social become critical for getting information out in real time during a crisis and for staying in touch with the public and your employees," Feldman notes. "And it's important that we're able to let people know we're here to help."

Health systems and providers are also focusing on building their social media presence as their audience grows. According to a Pricewaterhouse Coopers survey of 1,060 U.S. adults, sixty-one percent of the respondents said they're likely to trust information posted by providers, compared to 37 percent trusting information posted by a drug company.

Social media enables providers to communicate with their patients outside of the office and share information more efficiently, notes Dr. Antonio Pizarro, MD, who runs aprivate practicein Shreveport, LA. Pizarro specializes in obstetrics and gynecology, as well as reconstructive surgery. "Social media allows me to publish clinical information, opinions, and calls to action that I think will benefit the audience," Pizarro says. The ability to quickly create a post and share it with his followers also allows Pizarro to promote health topics beyond women's health. "I have tweeted about emergency preparedness, meningitis vaccines, dealing with grief, and other subjects that are not related directly to my specialty," he adds.

To maintain an authentic dialogue with his patients, it's important to avoid content that could be perceived as self-promoting, Pizarro maintains. "There is a fine line [between useful versus promotional content], but it works [as long as] the content is sincere and strives to promote health," he says. "The biggest pitfall could be breaching confidentiality or patient privacy, and I avoid that by simply not offering direct patient care via social media."Pizarro engages his audience mainly on Twitter and Facebook, in addition to a blog on his website, but says he keeps an eye out for other platforms that may benefit his patients.

Despite regulatory restrictions, healthcare organizations are finding more ways to engage consumers on social media beyond using social channels as a one-way communication stream, agrees Jake Miller, media relations and social media lead at Marshfield Clinic. Marshfield Clinic is a health system with two hospitals and more than 50 clinic locations across Wisconsin.

"In the beginning, our Facebook page was primarily used as a marketing tool where we just pushed stuff out," Miller explains, "But we've been working on doing more with social media by being more responsive and engaging with our community and so we're seeing much more positive results."

Miller describes Marshfield Clinic's social strategy as a "hub and spoke model" in which its blog serves as the primary source of content that is shares through its accounts on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn. The company uses Hootsuite to help it manage and monitor its social communications. But in addition to posting content, the company finds itself increasingly fielding questions about personal health and customer service-related requests.

"For example, a patient was traveling and wrote to us on Facebook at 1 a.m. that she needed to cancel an appointment," Miller recalls. "I happened to be online at that time and so I was able to quickly help her reschedule."

Miller attributes these changing uses of social media to the notion that customers "don't want to engage with us on our blog or Facebook page and then go to a separate portal to ask a question, they want to do everything on the same page and so we've had to make some adjustments to provide that."

Those adjustments include trying to respond to posts faster (within five minutes or less) as well as standardizing responses for consumers who ask personal health-related questions. Those consumers are asked to continue the conversation through a private message or directed to the appropriate representative. In terms of measuring the effectiveness of its social efforts, Marshfield Clinic keeps track of social sentiment through reporting tools and surveys and looks for links between the data and patient retention rates.

Customers can get frustrated by the limited responses to their questions on social media but "we've gotten good at getting people to the right sources or answering the questions we can as quickly as possible," Miller maintains. "The important thing is for people to be comfortable reaching out to us on social and know that we can handle their concerns as easily as if they made a phone call."