Social media for hospitals more than "bums on seats”

Emergency physician and medical informatics blogger Mike Cadogan has released a survey on social media use by Australian hospitals, finding that we are still lagging behind the US and the UK and potentially missing out on the benefits of wider healthcare communication.

Dr Cadogan, a writer for the Life In The Fast Lane blog and co-founder of online health directory HealthEngine, is a believer in the use of social media to encourage the exchange of quality information between health practitioners and the public. And by social media, he is not limiting himself to popular sites like Facebook and Twitter.

“Social media is a widely used and poorly understood phrase,” he said. “In essence to embrace ‘social media’ and create engagement I was looking for the hospitals, colleges and health departments to show some move towards harnessing the power of the internet to provide accurate information and potentially to provide an avenue for engagement with the public either in terms of providing locally relevant health information or to assist with questions/queries from the public.”

Dr Cadogan said a website and newsletter are good communication tools, but by bringing the information online and curating the content appropriately, hospitals have the opportunity to take control of their online digital presence.

“Their footprint is already out there, but is often inaccurate, out of date and not useful to the general public,” he said.

Even on the hospital's landing page or domain, basic information was often lacking, he said. “As a member of the public trying to find relevant information about a particular hospital it is perturbing to find that even rudimentary information such as the hospital name, geographical location, contact details, services provided, and presence of an emergency department are often very difficult to find – especially in the public system.

“Even simple things like travel arrangements, car parking, hospital visiting hours, contact details and public transport infrastructure are lacking in over 70 per cent of cases.”

He believes that public hospitals have a responsibility to provide accurate information in terms of hospital name, location, transport, parking facilities, departments, emergency services, visiting hours and adult, paediatric or women's health provision. He also said hospitals should use social media as a communication tool with potential employees.

“Overseas doctors, potential recruits, medical students, nursing staff all like to be able to accurately research information prior to applying for positions,” he said. “And health initiatives, free cancer screening, research funding etc would all be better publicised if the hospital had an increased profile on the web.”

Dr Cadogan first conducted a survey in 2009, examining 935 Australian hospitals. That survey found that while hospitals were becoming more compliant with organisational websites and directory listings, the use of social media had yet to be embraced. He found three hospital blogs, two official Facebook pages and one Twitter account.

Following the 2009 survey, he predicted that there would be significant changes over the next 12 months. However, in his 2012 survey, he found that was not the case.

His analysis of 846 hospitals in 2012 found 111 Twitter accounts, but they were actually only made up of 24 unique accounts, with only nine run by individual hospitals. Of the 96 Facebook pages found, they all came from 14 sources. He found 84 hospitals affiliated directly with a YouTube channel, but these were made up of eight distinct entities, including five healthcare groups, two charitable foundations and one private hospital.

“The advent of online resources, free social media platforms, high speed broadband and a strong social networking presence amongst the Australian public has, unfortunately, not been reflected in a marked increase in social media provisions by hospitals in Australia,” he wrote.

“We were initially encouraged by the increased numbers of groups associated with social media channels and thought this might have been a tipping point in providing high quality information from medical professionals in Australia to the general public. However we are still a long way from providing the same level of health education and social interaction as the United States. On the whole public hospitals lack interest, lack detail, lack information, and lack social engagement.”

Dr Cadogan, who also tweets as sandnsurfs, recommended that hospitals and healthcare providers use tools like Twitter as an online newsletter, a link builder and a conversation channel. “By having a Twitter account the institution is able to monitor the conversation online, provide assistance (online or offline) as required and create a portal to direct patients and staff to relevant aspects of their website,” he said.

“Hospitals provide a great deal in terms of initiatives ranging from increasing car parking and transport options through to foundation events, health drives, and healthy lifestyle publications. These strategies take a lot of time and effort to build and produce and are often lost in the ether or in the hard-wiring of a poorly functioning website. These educational and practical resources can be directed towards the public in a more effective manner – by using a medium they are engaged with.”

The main barriers to increased social media use are a mixture of lack of time, lack of funding and lack of interest, he said. “The public hospitals find it difficult to rationalise that providing appropriate information through the internet via alternate sources is in fact a good thing, not a dangerous thing. Finding an appropriate person within HR or media liaison or funding a new position seems like an onerous task with little obvious perceived benefit from the powers that be.”

He said typical responses to calls for an increased social media presence included time – “Why should we be involved, it is not like we need more patients”; expertise – “A social media expert costs money – what is the ROI?”; and understanding “I hate/detest/don’t understand Facebook and Twitter – it is such a waste of time and resources – we have better things to do with our time…”

He agreed that providing an evidence-based value proposition for the engagement with technology is a hard sell. “It has to be driven from within an organisation. The UK have done well as the government collated all the information into a single resource and those hospitals that wanted a higher profile built their own websites and increased their web presence.”

Dr Cadogan singled out South Gippsland Hospital, Alfred Health, Ramsay Health and Austin Health as examples of public and private hospitals that are using social media well, but said it was still very early days for the Australian system. The US provides a good example of what to do, although that system has different needs to publicly funded system, he said.

“The US have a fee for service model which requires more ‘bums on seats’ and the competitive advantage of high profile staff and online engagement is obvious. I still enjoy the Mayo Clinic as a great example and the one that most US hospitals are trying to emulate.”

Hospitals are beginning to take ownership of their websites and their online presence, he said, but “at this stage just having your own domain, taking responsibility for accurate and pertinent information, proving appropriate contact points at a physical and virtual level and providing the early basis for education is a great starting point.”

“If every hospital had this, it would be a fantastic initiative to at least start stage one of the communication process…we are a long way off from an interactive conversation.”

Posted in Australian eHealth


0 # Nicole 2012-05-09 10:45
I also think there is an issue with public hospitals not getting involved because of IT security. The public health information technology departments seem very sceptical to move forward to even allowing employees to use wireless devices for easy communication. I think social media is the way forward even within the health system firewalls to allow simple easy communication by health professionals to improve areas like education and training.

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