How social media can be a friend, not foe, to hospitals

Social media can be a valuable tool for promoting hospitals and health systems but can harm their reputations in a matter of "seconds" if used in the wrong way, human resources and marketing chiefs told Becker's.

A few recent examples show the downsides. Emory University Hospital Midtown in Atlanta, part of Emory Healthcare, confirmed to Becker's in December that four employees no longer worked there after discussing patient "icks" in a TikTok video. In Ohio, a plastic surgeon's license was suspended after she live-streamed procedures to more than 800,000 followers. And last fall, Salem (Ore.) Health launched an investigation related to an employee who posted a video on social media that apparently made light of a patient's suffering. The employee no longer works at the health system. 

"Salem Health recognizes the benefit of social media as a way to share and celebrate the work we do every day, and the significant opportunity it provides to bring new talent to our organization and to build connections," the health system said in a statement shared with Becker's. "Most of the time, people make good decisions and use social media appropriately. When that does not happen, we work to understand the situation and hold people accountable for their choices."

The breadth of social media policies

Most, if not all, hospitals and health systems have social media policies, including general behavioral expectations for social media postings, a spokesperson for the American Hospital Association said. The association does not have general rules members must abide by in terms of their individual policies.

"It's well known that a reputation can take years to build and seconds to destroy," said Brian Deffaa, chief marketing officer of Baltimore-based LifeBridge Health. "While social media offers an amazing opportunity to connect to our patients and communities … we have a responsibility to ensure that it accurately represents our organization while strengthening our reputation with these key stakeholders."

To that end, LifeBridge Health reminds employees to be mindful of what they're sharing, even on personal accounts, Mr. Deffaa said. Community members have sent screenshots to the health systems of things staffers have posted.

LifeBridge has also had teams and departments excited about starting their own social media accounts. While "well-intentioned," Mr. Deffaa said, they often don't have a plan for how to manage their content or respond to something negative that happens. So LifeBridge encourages them to let its social media team take the reins.

A balancing act

Emory Healthcare told Becker's via a statement that it has a strict social media policy establishing guidelines and parameters for employees and "requires them to uphold and demonstrate Emory Healthcare's values and standards. We educate our employees and providers on this policy, and we take patient privacy very seriously. We expect team members to exhibit professionalism and good judgment when using social media.

"We want patients and team members alike to feel safe, protected and respected while in our healthcare facilities."

Jaime Nichols, chief human resources officer of Salem Health, said social media is almost always a great tool and used to help advance the health system's work and the work of its employees. 

Still, she acknowledged there are risks, which her organization intentionally educates and reminds employees about.

For example, "if you take a picture of yourself on campus, and you're just talking about how you're having a good day, that could unintentionally be a HIPAA violation, because of the fact that you're on campus where we're providing care, and you could have been violating the confidentiality of somebody," she said.

In addition to reminders about the do's and don'ts of social media, Ms. Nichols said Salem Health also tries to recognize and encourage workers about the positive things that can come from social media.

Don Dizon, MD, is the director of women's cancers at Lifespan Cancer Institute, director of medical oncology at Rhode Island Hospital in Providence and a professor of medicine at Brown University.

He is also a social media personality, with more than 14,000 followers on Twitter and another nearly 45,000 on TikTok under the handle DoctorDon. For Dr. Dizon, social media is another mode of connection with oncology leaders, patients and community members. It allows him to humanize medicine, he told Becker's.

Social media is a changing environment for healthcare institutions, but one many are starting to warm up to, Dr. Dizon said. He knows colleagues who work for healthcare institutions that encourage them to start accounts on Twitter or engage on professional social media networks like LinkedIn or Doximity.

"My institutions are aware that I'm on social media," he said. "They will often retweet or repost things that I do. And it's certainly not seen as a disadvantage."

Hospital social media leaders collaborate

At Danville, Pa.-based Geisinger, employees are required to annually review the health system's social media policy, which places a strong emphasis on patient privacy, said Don Stanziano, chief marketing and communications officer. Staffers are also prohibited from speaking on behalf of Geisinger on their personal accounts.

"Social media is a powerful communications tool and presents fantastic opportunities for connecting critical information with patients, consumers and communities — but it does not come without risk," said Sean Young, senior vice president and chief marketing officer of Hershey, Pa.-based Penn State Health.

Mr. Young said those hazards include unofficial or "rogue" branded accounts; account administrators treating organizational accounts like personal ones; complaints or questions going unanswered because of a lack of monitoring; and breaches in confidentiality or other regulatory and legal guidelines. 

So Penn State Health developed a formal social media audit and risk assessment, leading to the creation of a social media governance group comprising clinical, administrative, academic and cybersecurity leaders. Two Penn State Health staffers are also members of Health, a consortium of social media decision-makers from major hospitals and health systems.

The experts Becker's spoke with said the benefits of social media are worth the effort it takes to use it safely and thoughtfully.

"We have found the most net positive success when we leverage our official social media profiles to amplify the voices and experiences of our team members, keeping our faith-based mission at the core of our message," said Janice Lamy, chief marketing officer of Baton Rouge, La.-based Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System. "Sharing stories of the great work done in our ministries has consistently resonated with our team members, patients and communities on social media."

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