Health care and social media benefits: Improving patient engagement in 2013

Ed Burns, Site Editor

Hospitals have historically been reluctant to engage in health care social media initiatives. Potential patient privacy risks, in some cases, turn organizations off from sharing information with their patients over social networks. But some IT professionals think hospitals need to overcome these concerns in 2013 to take advantage of social media benefits and opportunities.

Ed Bennett, director of Web and communications technology at the University of Maryland Medical System, said many hospitals today still block doctors and nurses from sites like Facebook and Twitter while on the hospital's network. They do this to prevent privacy breaches, but Bennett feels these concerns are overblown. Providers should improve access next year as they start to realize this.

"I think that's going to be the big area that needs the most attention over the next year," Bennett said. "The trends in other industries show that organizations are unblocking social media. My perception is that health care blocks [social media] more than [other industries]."

Kim Kardashian may have 17 million followers, but there are other folks that are a little bit more influential for the right reasons.

Charles Boicey, informatics solutions architect at the University of California, Irvine, Medical Center

He added that doctors and hospitals can use social media to protect their reputations on online review sites, get credible information out to patients and get involved in patient conversations. While these are things organizations have traditionally been reluctant to get involved in, it is possible to do them in a way that "protects your organization and protects privacy," Bennett said.

Patients continue to turn to the Internet for health information in increasing numbers. A 2012 survey conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, found that 88% of people who care for loved ones and have access to the Internet look for answers to their questions online. A study from Pricewaterhouse Coopers found that 24% of patients post information about their health experiences to social networking sites. Up to 60% of respondents said they would trust online information posted by physicians.

It's up to hospitals and physicians to meet this demand for social information sharing, said Charles Boicey, informatics solutions architect at the University of California Irvine Medical Center, and co-creator of MappyHealth, an online application that tracks posts to social media sites to predict and follow potential disease outbreaks.

Boicey said social networks offer an opportunity for providers to educate and engage with patients. There is a lot of health information on the Internet, but it isn't always vetted by qualified medical professionals. The quality of these sites increases when doctors become more active online. This can help patients learn more about their own health.

"As more and more credible people use social media, the data is becoming more credible," Boicey said. "Kim Kardashian may have 17 million followers, but there are other folks that are a little bit more influential for the right reasons."

Social media shouldn't be the only thing hospitals try in order to improve patient engagement in their own care, Boicey added. But when used alongside patient portals and follow-up contacts it can be an effective way to activate individuals and get them more interested in their health.

Just because there are potential benefits to engaging patients via social media platforms doesn't mean providers should delve headlong into the world of Facebook and Twitter. Both Boicey and Bennett said policies governing how doctors interact with patients online should be clearly spelled out to mitigate HIPAA violation risks, among other reasons. Every health care organization that starts social media initiatives should give thought to this policy before encouraging large-scale involvement.

Bennett said he believes the number of patients using social media for health purposes will continue to increase in 2013. This provides organizations with an opportunity to reach new patients and engage existing ones. What is less clear, Bennett said, is whether hospitals and doctors will take advantage of this opportunity.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Ed Burns, news writer,or contact @EdBurnsTT on Twitter.

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