The Business Case for Social Media in Health Care

January 9, 2017 12:46 pm

Social media use by employees throughout a hospital or health system can be a helpful tool for patient and community engagement.

Historically, reaching patients and consumers within the healthcare industry to provide them with information about diseases, hospital services, and treatment has been a task for the marketing department. Traditional methods of reaching these consumers have included offline channels such as billboards, making it difficult to measure marketing ROI. Today’s consumers are staying connected to the world around them by seeking and receiving their information, and through social media, they are connected 24/7.

Social media offers a method of communication that can quickly and effectively reach and engage a large population of consumers. For this reason, social media plays a more important role than ever before not only for healthcare marketers, but also for entire hospitals and health systems. A critical consideration, however, is that the sensitivity of the information that hospitals and health systems maintain (e.g., patient records, insurance costs, etc.) makes it imperative that these organizations ensure such information is distributed only in ways that are secure and compliant with regulations.

Benefits of Social Media for Hospitals and Health Systems

With this one important caveat in mind, to reach an audience of consumers who are increasingly tech savvy, healthcare leaders should avail themselves of the opportunity to leverage social media platforms to engage with consumers in a timely fashion. Social media offers hospitals and health systems several benefits, including:

  • Exposure for local hospitals
  • A fast and easy to access way to share important healthcare information and tips
  • A sense of community between patients, prospective patients, and the hospital or health system
  • Reduced marketing expenses
  • A more broad reach to gain new partnerships
  • A way to showcase achievements

According to 2012 report on social media use, 26 percent of all hospitals in the United States participate in social media. a That leaves a large number of organizations that have yet to transition to social media use.

Among marketers responding to a study of social media in marketing, 92 percent indicated that their social media efforts have generated more exposure for their businesses. b The same study reports that among increased benefits from social media usage, one of the largest was an increase in sales, which improved to 50 percent from 43 percent in 2013.

Platform Choice

Choosing the social media platform that best fits the hospital or health system’s needs and customer reach is essential. But not every platform is right for all. Commonly used platforms such as Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Pinterest, Twitter, Foursquare, Reddit, and blogs will be successful to varying degrees depending on the organization’s need for and use of the platform. A good starting point hospitals and health systems to familiarize themselves with the types of platforms is to begin increasing awareness through these channels.

Understanding the audience of each platform is a key point to keep in mind when choosing the platform(s) that best fit for an individual hospital or health system. Some social channels are more geared toward business-oriented partnerships or patient advocacy groups, such as LinkedIn; those partnerships can help get a hospital’s brand in front of a wider audience. Other platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, are more consumer-facing, allowing hospitals and health systems to interact more directly with past, present, and future patients.

The Impact of Social Media

Sharing success stories across social media channels is a great way to spread awareness in addition to validating why the hospital or health system matters. In February 2009, Henry Ford Hospital, with the patient’s permission, was one of the first hospitals to use Twitter to engage a live audience during a procedure. c Following the live updates about the surgery, physicians, medical students, and the general public tuned in to get the information at the point of care in real time. Henry Ford Hospital’s goal in engaging a large audience during this surgery was to help educate other physicians and the public, and Twitter proved an effective platform for reaching this audience.

Another healthcare organization that has used social media for educational purposes is the Mayo Clinic. During a training presentation for local chapters of the American Heart Association, the Mayo Clinic used Twitter to enable participants to contribute to the discussion. Participants also could find others talking about the training overview by searching for the designated hashtag. By enabling people to see who is talking about an issue, hashtags on Twitter provide a means for them to stay connected to current events and real-time industry trends. Twitter also allows users to make lists, allowing them to use hashtags to monitor and easily access information on events or trends lasting for days, weeks, or months.

The ability to share images is another benefit of many social media platform. Through simple photos, hospitals and health systems can connect success stories with healthy patients.

Social media also provide a rapid means to communicate with populations during a crisis. Hospitals and health systems invariably are at the center of crises such as natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and plane crashes, and in such an event, they can quickly leverage social media networks to provide real-time updates about emergency department wait times, accessibility by local roads, ways community members can assist (e.g., donate blood), and where those watching from afar can go for specific information about a friend or family member.

Understand What Information is Acceptable for Social Media Sharing

In addition to the benefits, social media also poses risks. Of particular concern to healthcare organizations is the accidental disclosure of patients’ personal health information (PHI) in violation of the privacy protections established by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which defines how hospitals and health systems may use PHI.

For example, sharing of patient photos or any other identifying information, including verbal gossip, is a violation of HIPAA, even if the patient’s name is not disclosed. Less obvious violations include photos of events unrelated to patient care, such as workplace lunches, where patient files are visible in the photo. Furthermore, HIPAA’s reach extends beyond active posts on public pages. A hospital employee posting to his or her personal, locked Twitter feed is still subject to penalties, as is an individual or organization that fails to delete a post that violates the rule, even unknowingly.

Violating HIPAA can result in civil and criminal penalties. HIPAA violations range in severity; from a minimum penalty of $100 (often because an individual was not aware of the rules) to a maximum penalty of $1.5 million for willful neglect that was not corrected. The sidebar offers tips for staying HIPAA compliant.

Sidebar: Staying HIPAA Compliant on Social Media

Launching a Social Media Strategy

Cultivating a successful social media plan will require a protocol to ensure those who are posting will follow the same tone and messaging guidelines. Although social media can be conversational and responsive to real-time events, developing guidelines and a clear strategy will be beneficial to keep momentum going.

Here are key points to keep in mind when building social media channels.

Ensure that social media posts are geared toward the appropriate audience for the chosen channel. For example, you might use Facebook as a patient-facing channel while LinkedIn would be a better way to reach healthcare professionals.

Set an internal social media policy.An individual should be assigned to oversee social media efforts across all of the organizations adopted social media channels. Your social media policy should be clear on which types of communications are allowed, and at least one person should be assigned and trained on how to use each platform.  Your policy guidelines should also provide situation specific plans for responses to posts and comments.  For example, you should outline how best to respond to both positive and negative comments posted.

Ensure all social media posts are HIPAA-compliant.The social media strategy should be based on a thorough understanding of HIPAA regulations, and there should be clearly articulated guidelines that define for users what is acceptable and unacceptable under the law.

Keep the organization engaged with its community. The hospital or health system should be actively and broadly involved in social media, commenting on trends and issues and participating in community discussions, for example. The goal should be not only to raise the organization’s profile, but also take a stand in the local area.

Establish goals and define success for measuring a social media campaign. Goals might include the number of people “liking” or following your pages and posts. It is possible to collect metrics on reviews (both positive and negative) and track how or if social media has brought new patients.

Social media offers hospitals and health systems an effective means for sharing accurate, timely information regarding symptoms, diseases, medications, treatments and more, while also increasing exposure to reach new and potential consumer targets to increase revenue. Social media platforms provide a forum for patients to share their health problems and questions about treatments with other patients, as well as qualified medical personnel. Hospitals and health systems can use these platforms in a similar way to enhance patient experiences outside their facilities.


a. Ottenhoff, M., “ Infographic: Rising Use of Social and Mobile in Healthcare,” Spark Report, Dec. 17, 2012.

b. Stelzner, M.A, “ 2014 Social Media Marketing Industry Report: How Marketers are Using Social Media to Grow Their Businesses,” Social Media Examiner, May 2014.

c. “ 5 Examples of Social Media in Healthcare Marketing,” TopRank Marketing Blog,


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