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9 ways social media is impacting the business of healthcare

According to a recent report by the Health Research Institute at PwC US, nine distinct uses of social media are helping companies to have an impact on the healthcare business, and to take a more active and engaged role in managing individuals' health.

"Organizations should coordinate internally to effectively integrate information from the social media space and connect with their customers in more meaningful ways that provide value and increase trust," the report read. "Insights from social media also offer instant feedback on products or services, along with new ideas for innovation. Organizations that can incorporate this information into their operations will be better positioned to meet the needs of today’s consumers."

The report outlined nine additional ways social media is impacting the business side of healthcare.  

1. Communication is shifting to public, more open forums. Which means less money spent on mailings, websites, and other marketing initiatives. According to the report, four characteristics of social media have altered the nature of interactions among people and organizations: user-generated content, community, rapid distribution, and open, two-way dialogue. "In the past, a company would connect with its customers via mail or a website, but today's dialogue has shifted to open, public forums that reach many more individuals," read the report. "Early adopters of social media in the health sector are not waiting for customers to come to them." Ed Bennett, who oversees social media efforts at the University of Maryland Medical Center, agreed. "If you want to connect with people and be part of their community, you need to go where the community is," he said. "You need to be connecting before you are actually needed." 

2. Patients (or consumers) are taking a more active role in their healthcare. Social media presents new opportunities for how individuals manage their health, the report noted, whether researching a certain illness or joining a support group. "The virtual aspect of social media enhances communications by creating a comfortable, often anonymous, environment for engaging and exchanging information." In addition, patients are using tools like Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube to better educate themselves. When faced with an important health decision, the report read, social media can provide a new avenue of information and dialogue. "Some may share a health goal to generate support or engage in a patient community to interact with other patients," it read.

[See also: Social media becomes a business intelligence strategy .]

3. Increased access to information means patients are demanding more transparency.  Laura Clapper, MD, CMO of the online community OneRecovery, compared healthcare's use of social media with that of a bank's. "As more people go online to interact with their banks and make purchases, they want to do this with their doctors, health plans, and condition and disease management as well," she said. According to the report, many industry insiders referenced social media site PatientsLikeMe, an eight-year-old health data-sharing platform, as an example of how more than 140,000 patients are connecting with each other. "Social networks will peel back every corner of the health system and drive transparency on cost, value, and outcomes," said Jamie Heywood, co-founder and chairman of PatientsLikeMe. "The information asymmetry that patients experience will be leveled, allowing the average patient to evaluate and improve his or her conditions, as well as the system's performance."

4. More instant feedback can help both consumers and organizations. With patients more actively taking to social media to express opinions, grievances, and experiences, they expect faster response times from organizations, the report read. "Truly social brands will listen to what customers are saying and feeling and use that insight to adapt and create products and services," said Kelly Colbert, director of strategic advertising at insurer WellPoint. In addition to improving services and creating products to better meet the needs of patients, social media has taken on a more practical approach to basic, day-to-day operations within an organization. For example, according to the report, 49 percent of those polled expect to hear from their doctor when requesting an appointment or follow-up via social media within a few hours. 

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5. Social information is impacting how and when patients select treatment and providers. It's no secret consumers are increasingly turning toward social media to make healthcare-related decisions, like what physician to see and when to seek a second opinion. For example, according to the report, 40 percent of those polled said information found in social media would affect the way they coped with a chronic condition, their approach to diet and exercise, and their selection of a specific doctor. "Across the health industry, consumers seem to value information and services that will help them make their healthcare easier to manage," the report read. 

6. Social media allows for higher levels of trust. According to the report, consumer survey respondents said they would be most likely to trust information posted via social media (from doctors, hospitals, etc.) and, they'd be most likely to share information with providers via social media. The reason individuals trust their doctors the most? Human relationships, the report detailed. "You want to trust and connect with the people providing you the care," said Kathryn Armstrong, senior producer of web communications at Lehigh Valley Health Network. "It's easier to trust a person than an organization." Healthcare providers have the ability to form human relationships and connect with their patients, the report added, which ultimately leads to increased trust.

[See also: Social media for hospitals: Without it, 'you don't exist'.]

7. Social media is evolving from a marketing tool into a business strategy. Although 82 percent of respondents said their social media efforts are managed by their marketing department, the report showcased how social media's use is extending into customer service, innovation, and service/product development. "As people go through life events and their health journey, they have changing interests in health," said Ann Sherry, senior director of Kaiser Permanente's Internet services. "They want and need different tools and different interactions." Having a social media strategy isn't' enough, she added. "It's about social strategy."

8. Providers can use social media as an outcomes-based measurement. The industry is shifting toward outcomes-based measurement, due in part to provisions in the Affordable Care Act, like Medicare's Value-Based Purchasing and accountable care, read the report. "Social media can offer a unique mechanism for collaborating with other organizations/partners to coordinate care," it read. The report advised using social media to support meaningful use efforts, all while defining a digital strategy and clear usage guidelines. "A hospital's or physician's first encounter with a patient is often through its online presence," it read. "Providers should take advantage of the trust consumers have for them over other health companies."

9. Health insurers can use social media to help focus on population health. According to the report, health insurers understand that focusing on the individual population will be key, as more partnerships in population health are formed and insurance exchanges bring in 12 million newly insured individuals in 2014, and up to 28 million by 2019. By casting your company as a "patient advocate," it continued, you'll get a jump start on understanding the needs of potential members and determining which needs can be met through social media. Additionally, it noted, organizations should begin to determine an approach to data aggregation and understanding the direct and indirect benefits of social media. 

Follow Michelle McNickle on Twitter, @Michelle_writes

 

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