Like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” managers in the healthcare industry search for terra firma only to find that they’re in the whirlwinds of change. Hospitals are contending with healthcare reform, the complexity of delivery systems, declining budgets and the challenges that increased documentation present for direct patient care. They’re also doing it in an era of swiftly advancing technology—and their customers are on the edge of that advance, especially when it comes to social media.

By 2010, 22 percent of all time spent online was spent on blogging or social media sites. Nielsenwire reported that one in every four minutes spent online was spent on social networks or blog sites. Nearly 40 percent of social media users access the sites from mobile phones, and users over the age of 55 are driving the growth of social networking through mobile sites.

The amount of healthcare information online also is growing exponentially. A recent study from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project reported that after Internet search and email, the third most popular online activity is searching for healthcare information: 61 percent of patients now seek healthcare information online. Nearly a quarter of our time spent on the Internet is spent on blogs and social networks, much of it health-related.

The question no longer is, “Should I have a social media presence?” but rather, “Which social media sites should I use to make the biggest impact, get the most results or generate the best discussion?” Healthcare companies have come to recognize that without such a presence, they are likely to lose potential customers, miss out on industry trends or fail to maximize technology capabilities. But we are rule-bound and attached to our familiar landscapes. We are accustomed to controlling patient care, administering our functions and dictating how people use our goods and services. If managers let go of some control, however, they can capitalize on an even more significant trend—patients and the public at large expect to be partners in their care, not just recipients of services. The standard forms of engagement and education are no longer sufficient. The immediate availability and profound reach of social media have taken us from Kansas to Oz in less than five years.

What can managers do to map out the new territory?

1. Set a flexible framework. First and foremost, make sure your hospital has a social media policy accompanied by procedures for how you and your staff may interact with the world through social media. Your employees need to know how you expect them to use such media to improve the enterprise—and what’s off-limits. Tell them what’s in it for them, too. Using social media tools with savvy can help them with their jobs.

2. Do your research before setting off on your own expedition. Take some time to explore the remarkable online work that is being done by some flagship companies and hospitals. Many are fundamentally changing the way they do business.

Savvy pharmaceutical, equipment and device companies are marketing directly to consumers through various social media channels. Insurers “push” wellness programs via online forums, blogs, Twitter and other microblogs, wikis, video blogs, social networks and podcasting. Large, well-respected hospitals are designing social media sites to communicate with and educate patients—and potential patients. The Mayo Clinic even has a Social Media Health Network whose purpose is to connect its members so that they can “practically apply social media tools to improve healthcare, promote health and fight disease.”

The Mayo Clinic’s network was inspired by the Social Media Business Council, a group of companies that banded together to discover how to use social media in large traditional organizations. Mayo’s network is open to everyone from the largest private hospital chain (HCA is a member) and insurers to small physician practices. The goal is to build a community that maximizes social media to help all segments of the industry prosper.

The idea can work for hospital managers, too. It isn’t about a competitive advantage (although that may be one result); it’s about reducing the impact of disease everywhere, enhancing the health of the world, providing better places to live and work, sharing current research, and engaging others in partnership. Health networks can be extraordinarily helpful by sharing platforms to use behind firewalls; teaching others how to use software; and providing information-sharing workshops, webinars and members-only events, much like HealthTrust University does for its members.

3. Help others join the journey. The larger trend mentioned earlier—patients being not only participants, but advocates for their own healthcare—is in full swing. If you doubt the power of the role of social media in such trends, consider the recent case of two women who both had spontaneous coronary artery dissection, a very rare heart condition.

These women found each other on a health-related online site, then researched and discovered 70 others who had similar experiences. They took their findings to Dr. Sharonne Hayes, a renowned cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic. In essence, these women brought her already-qualified research subjects, adding to the body of knowledge of a condition Dr. Hayes acknowledged is hard to study. (Her description of this phenomenon is worth seeing:

Instances like this may change how subjects are recruited and studied around the world. Not only is the research out there for people to find and use, there is a new demand that people who have such information push it to those who might desperately need it.

So yes, social media can drive your business, keep you current, change your focus and educate your employees and customers. It is a powerful twister that has taken us away from the comfort of our old homes and plunked us down in uncharted territory. However, managers who discover how to use these powerful tools and communicate them widely in their organizations will find that growing their influence, improving their knowledge base and becoming more engaged with customers are the ultimate results.

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Author Information

Susan Williams, PhD

Williams is professor of management at Belmont University’s Jack C. Massey Graduate School of Business, and she also serves Belmont’s Center for Executive Education as a curriculum designer and faculty member. Her teaching interests include ethical decision making, continuous improvement and strategic thinking. More Articles by This Author »