Social Media and Health Care: Challenges and Potential

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Lee AaseOn February 10, 2011, Mayo Clinic (Rochester, Minnesota) launched its Social Media Health Network, a group aimed at leveraging social media to improve health care. Charter members of the network include Mayo Clinic; Bon Secours Health System (Marriottsville, Maryland); Inova Health System (Falls Church, Virginia); Mission Health System (Asheville, North Carolina); Swedish Health Services (Seattle, Washington); and Radboud University Medical Center (Nijmegen, Netherlands).

On February 21, 2011, in Orlando, Florida, Lee Aase, director of the Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media, presented “Bringing the Social Media Revolution to Healthcare” at the annual meeting of the Health Information and Management Systems Society. He shares the Social Media Health Network’s experience with entering the social-media space, as well as its ambitions for the new group.

Aase observes that the core goal of the Social Media Health Network is connecting disparate organizations across the country—and around the world, with Radboud University acting as a community leader for Europe—for collaboration and mutual education. He says, “The idea behind the center is to help Mayo Clinic most effectively use social media to improve health care to fight disease, to promote health, and for both internal collaboration as well as externally connecting with key stakeholders.”¹ He adds that the network offers organizations an opportunity to learn together.

Health Care Social Media

The most critical challenge facing health-care organizations seeking to leverage social media is protection of patients’ health information, Aase notes. That’s why one of the Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media’s key objectives is creating guidelines by which organizations can educate their constituents to ensure that privacy is maintained in a communications space focused on sharing.

Aase observes that privacy policies apply just as much to social media as they do to other data sources. He says, “Protected health information can be divulged in an elevator conversation. It can be divulged by a fax machine, by phone, by people overhearing things.”¹ The center has responded by providing education.

The importance of this education is amplified by the generation gap that has traditionally governed social-media use. Aase stresses that because younger employees are noticeably—even notoriously—more fluent in using social-media platforms like Facebook than their older colleagues are, their attitude toward privacy might be more lax. “They think of Facebook as something they use all the time, and may not make the connection,” he says, “so the education is a huge part.”

Aase says that whether health-care organizations feel prepared to acknowledge social media as a valuable tool or not, these media are part of mainstream consumer communication. He says, “For those who are concerned, I would just introduce them to the iPhone and let them know that whether they allow employees to have access to social media or whether they have their own social media sites, the reality is that a large proportion of their employees are already using social media. It isn’t an optional thing.”¹

New Platform, New Potential

Educating employees and stakeholders on the appropriate use of social media is only one piece of the puzzle, Aase says. A network such as the one launched by Mayo Clinic can help organizations share best practices and develop policies together that will enable them to leverage social-media tools effectively in the future. Aase compares the Center for Social Media to Mayo Clinic’s Clinical Health Policy Center, saying, “We’re building on the leadership that we’ve had in our adoption of social media. This gives us a chance, in a more formal way, to share what we’ve learned, but also to learn from others.”¹

Aase notes that leveraging consumer social media provides a marketing opportunity for health-care organizations, observing that the cost of Mayo Clinic’s Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube use is zero. There is also an opportunity to improve patient care. As an example, he shares the story of Mayo Clinic patient Erin Turner, who learned about (and later, underwent) an innovative treatment for the wrist pain that had plagued her for years through the organization’s Twitter feed.

“Without Twitter and those in the medical community willing to experiment with new communications tools, the potential for a future without chronic wrist pain might not exist for me,”² Turner writes. Aase says,