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Study: Providers Can No Longer Afford to Ignore Social Media

April 19, 2012
by Gabriel Perna
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An exclusive interview on why healthcare organizations should start looking at social media more seriously, and how to do it

The skyrocketing growth of social media in healthcare is very real and an opportunity for providers to engage their patients better, according to a recently released study from the New York-based PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Health Research Institute (PwC). The study, “Social media ‘likes’ healthcare: From marketing to social business,” looks at the opportunities that exist for providers, payers, and pharmaceutical companies in using social media platforms in healthcare, amid the growth of its presence in the industry.

According to the study, which researchers derived from a survey of 1,000 U.S. consumers and 124 members of the eHealth Initiative (eHI), one-third of the public are using social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter and online forums to seek medical information, track and share symptoms, and broadcast how they feel about a provider, physician, drug, or health plan. Forty-two percent of consumers have used social media to find health-related consumer reviews of treatments or physicians. Fifty-four percent of the respondents feel “very comfortable” going to online physician communities for advice related to their health situation.

This increasing engagement, especially from the younger population (the 18-24 age group was the most likely to use social media, the research report’s authors say) presents unforeseen opportunities for providers, according toJohn Edwards, director of the healthcare strategy and business intelligence practice at PwC. Those who don’t, he cautions, will be left behind.

“I have a strong belief that those that have invested in social media, and brought it in their strategy, and those that continue to do it, will create a new competitive differentiation compared to their peers that aren’t,” Edwards says. “There are going to be people who make choices on what insurance companies they want to use, and what providers covered under their insurance that they will want to seek relationships with, based on social media.”

Forty-one percent of the respondents in PwC’s survey said social media would affect their choice of a specific doctor, hospital or medical facility. Forty-five percent said it would affect their decision to get a second opinion.

Business Strategy

Edwards says there is a difference between organizations that implement social media into their business strategy, and those that just use it as a marketing tool. While approximately 80 percent of the eHI members (providers, payers, and pharmaceutical organizations) surveyed had some kind of social media presence, only a small percent had it fully integrated across the board, and not just as a decentralized tool for marketing and communications.

More than half of the survey’s respondents said they were concerned on how to integrate social media into their business strategy. Implementing a strategy, Edwards says, means increasing patient adherence through understanding the patients via social media.

“It won’t happen unless you’re actively listening, and that doesn’t mean having a person sitting and watching the blogs,” Edwards says, while adding, “You probably have to think of a way to get IT support to comb through that data and create signals that you store in some informatics capability, like a data warehouse, allowing you to interact with that social media information in combination with other information you have on a patient.”

Patients, Edwards notes, are already engaging in conversations on social media about their health issues every day. It’s up to providers to tap into that interest. An example of a provider that is trying to do something like that is the 24-hospital health system based out of Dallas, Texas, Texas Health Resources. Texas Health developed an internal and external social media platform. The internal platform, used by 3,500 Texas Health employees, allows for knowledge sharing, innovation, and communication across their wide spectrum. The external platform allows for patients to create communities and find legitimate medical information.

Edwards says not many organizations are integrating social media effectively, and interestingly enough, patients are flocking to online patient communities instead. According to the report, websites like Patients Like Me and Caring Bridge, are immensely more popular for patients wanting to interact with others on their issues than a Facebook website set up by a provider. In fact, Edwards says PwC’s research indicated patients were 24-times as likely to interact on one of these community sites rather than a site set up by a provider. This shows there is a lot of room for growth in terms of creating meaningful interactions on the provider side.

Evidence-Based Solution

Going forward, Edwards says organizations will face challenges in implementing social media. Figuring out a return on investment (ROI) will be one difficulty, he says. Privacy and security concerns, especially from patients aged 45 and older, also could hinder social media integration. Yet, Edwards says these concerns are outweighed by the potential that social media data can offer providers as a real-time way to improve patient care, especially as the industry shifts to an evidence-based care environment.

Integrating social media into its enterprise wide business strategy is how it can accomplish better patient outcomes, says Edwards. “It won’t happen by accident” he says. “Companies that effectively use social media will be because they did it on purpose.”