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More Than Just Social

May 24, 2010
by Steven K. Wagner
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Hospital leaders discover the revenue cycle gains from social media

Within seconds, visitors to the Children's Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA) web site can learn exactly where the hospital's cyber heart is.

“Our hospital is social-are you?” reads a link on the main page for the Los Angeles, Calif. hospital. Underneath are icons for its Facebook and Twitter feeds, YouTube and LinkedIn channels, and We are CHLA-the hospital blog. Click on any link to enter the 286-bed hospital's cyber world.

Clearly, social networking has arrived, and with it, unexpected results. Not only has the hospital invited the world inside its walls, where stories of clinical miracles abound, but in doing so, has enhanced its own revenue cycle.

Steve Garske
Steve Garske

Other hospitals have experienced similar results: revenue enhancement resulting from strong social networking. It's a trend that could presage good things, as many hospitals struggle through an ongoing economic downturn.

“Since we upgraded our web site in 2008, more than $3 million has come in to the hospital through that portal,” says Steve Garske, CIO. “That success is largely due to having the information needed to facilitate giving available online and integrated with our social networking presence.”

Clint Schmucker
Clint Schmucker

That presence escalated in 2009, when the hospital developed a strategy for beefing up social networking. Plans were to introduce the public to the organization as a whole, share the clinical successes that were happening at CHLA, introduce the public to the clinical staff who were enabling those successes, and allow people to share their own stories.

The effort, which involved-among other things-securing the CEO's blessing to make such changes as removing the hospital firewalls and adding Facebook and other media to its repertoire, has succeeded in spades. Over the past year, the number of CHLA Facebook fans has increased from 750 to more than 5,000, and media such as LinkedIn and Twitter also have reported strong numbers. A community of followers has emerged.

“What I wanted was a vehicle that would enable people to share their stories and the amazing work that is being done here,” says Clint Schmucker, director of cross-functional services for information services.

What surprised many was the revenue stream that emerged: social networking created a channel for people to also share their financial resources via the hospital web site, which now averages 40,000 visits and 200,000 page views per month. Other potential revenue benefits also developed, including the capability to reach hundreds of thousands of potential patients-at no significant cost to the hospital.

“We obviously wanted to raise funds, but we also hoped that people would grab ahold of our vision and tell others that something incredible was happening here,” Schmucker says. “The power of social networking really is amazing,” he adds.

Across the country in Boston, leaders at the 621-bed Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) have been leading some form of social networking for more than a decade. John Halamka, M.D., the hospital's CIO, defines the phenomenon as “coming together as teams to solve problems in novel fashion.”

At BIDMC, social networking began in 1999 with a patient interactive site called patientsite and continued on to include Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, chat rooms, blogs and an employee-directed quality improvement exchange network called Spirit.

“No one goes to a web site just to read static content,” Halamka says. “People go there to ask a question or interact with others. We've tried to really engage patients and families.”

One way in which the hospital has achieved that goal has been through patientsite, a portal that allows all patients to view their medical records, renew medications, make appointments, secure specialty referrals, receive educational materials and do much more online. Patients also may e-mail their physicians.

“We did a patient survey and asked whether respondents would change doctors if they could have an e-enabled physician,” Halamka reports. “Nineteen percent said they would. What we discovered is an incredible patient recruitment and retention tool, and we've enabled just that.”

In essence, building social networks builds “stickiness” to an organization, Halamka says, and patient stickiness translates to revenue. He added that BIDMC has seen steady revenue growth since social networking was established there a decade ago, and he estimated the social networking effort has brought in millions of dollars in revenue.

John Halamka
John Halamka

“I think that's fair,” he says “Our reputation for being an easy-to-navigate and accessible hospital has caused us to retain and grow our patient base at a time when others have not.”