How Social Media is Both Friend and Foe to Healthcare Providers

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The use of different social media websites such as Twitter, Facebook, CaringBridge and others is growing among hospital and health system marketing departments, but there will always be caveats with this type of information sharing, said Cecilia Backman, associate director in health information management at Parkland Health and Hospital System in Dallas.

Speaking at AHIMA's 2011 Legal EHR Summit in Chicago on Aug. 15, Ms. Backman explained what functions social media serves within healthcare organizations and the social and legal risks that could stem from social media gone wild.

Social media use in healthcare
For hospitals and health systems, social media is mostly used in the following ways: communication, marketing, patient engagement/health education, philanthropy, recruitment and online background checks. Ms. Backman and others conducted a study in the Journal of AHIMA on hospital social media use in 2010, and of the 260 hospital respondents, 144 were using social media in some fashion. Of those using social media, 80 percent primarily used it for marketing while 63 percent mostly used it for communication purposes.

Ms. Backman said all of those functions can help convey the hospital's mission and values to the public, and social media is serving new functions as well, such as gauging patient satisfaction. "Social media is replacing a lot of standard research, and it is seen as a rich resource to meet people's needs," she said.

Healthcare social media risks
"Once you put it out there, you cannot retract the information," Ms. Backman said, reiterating a concern of any social media user. This instantaneous release of data hits the worldwide web at such a quick pace, and she says this can lead to institutional risks, many of which deal with potential breaches of patient privacy.

Additionally, there could be risks from patients who use social media aimed back at the hospital. While some patients could portray the hospital in a good light with positive experiences they encountered, there could just as easily be disparaging remarks or comments and news that reflect negatively toward the hospital. This is where the marketing side steps in. "Recognize there is an issue, and you as a company must respond to that," she said. In the end, all hospitals and health systems want to avoid four major risks: reputation damage, unfriendly headlines, CMS audits related to patient complaints and a loss of business due to loss of trust.

Risk mitigation

Technical and operation risk analyses are the starting point for any healthcare organization to manage the risk of their social media, Ms. Backman said. This includes the development of a policy on use of social media by employees, volunteers, contractors and anyone else involved with the organization. She also said a hospital must have preparations in case an employee or someone else violates these policies, and if protected health information is posted to a social media site, that is considered to be a reportable breach. The backbone of all of these risk mitigation techniques, though, is simple education to all parties of the ramifications of what is shared through social media.

Related Articles on Healthcare Social Media:

Study: Social Media Can Bolster Emergency Response Effectiveness
Survey: Most Facebook Users Don't Share Personal Health Information
Study: 57% of Consumers Choose a Hospital Based on its Social Media Connection

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