It's time for hospital executives to pay attention to social media

When the CIO of a large health system said during a healthcare conference he didn't care that patients complained of certain banalities on Twitter, such as hospital food or parking at the health system's facilities, he elicited surprise, confusion and disappointment among listeners.

Twitter is a social media platform free to anyone to use, whether it be for complaints, praise, commentary, jokes, gossip or news. While posts are lightly regulated, the quality of tweets disseminated to Twitter users is up to those who post them. And there are a lot of meaningless tweets out there. Having said that, this CIO's dismissive attitude of the platform to evaluate complaints about his health system is not only a mistake, but presents a sorely missed opportunity.

"Patients talk about other experiences in the hospital in addition to the medical care they receive," says Brian Loew, founder and CEO of Inspire, an online community of more than 750,000 members representing over 3,000 disease states. Members join Inspire and participate in discussions to ask and answer questions, share healthcare experiences and join an established support system. Many members are also identified to participate in clinical trials through Inspire's partnership with a variety of healthcare partners. "Less substantive things add up to be quite substantive in total," he says.

Hearing complaints from patients about negative experiences with hospital meals or difficulty finding parking may seem trivial, especially to executives who strive each day to ensure their institutions provide the best possible life-saving medical care. But as Mr. Loew says, these small elements of the patient experience collectively wage significant influence on the patient experience and satisfaction as a whole. While most hospitals have begun taking steps to address and improve these factors of the patient experience, many still overlook the tools already available to them to provide valuable insight for such efforts: social media.

"Social media has really become a large and rich channel for human expression, and to ignore that is to miss out on a wealth of information and people who perhaps didn't previously have a voice," says Mr. Loew. "It would be such a loss and a missed opportunity for any executive to ignore that channel of communication from their audience."

While in the past hospitals had to rely on surveys to gain patient feedback, or hope their marketing campaigns were effectively reaching their target audiences without really knowing for sure, the social media platforms already being utilized by millions of people offer healthcare organizations the exact kind of feedback they are seeking.

Users of Twitter, Facebook and other outlets post criticism and praise regarding the care they receive in the hospital. Skeptics and others who avoid social media often voice similar criticisms of the platforms: They are simply a forum to publish rants. While it's true critical posts sometimes take the form of a rant, at least they thoroughly convey the extent of the patient's dissatisfaction, and furthermore provide hospitals with raw, uncensored information about what needs to be improved. The information posted in real time on social media platforms — negative or positive — presents a valuable opportunity to improve the patient experience.  

"Patients are having these conversations anyways," says Mr. Loew. "Rather than ignore these community discussions, hospitals should embrace them and try to get involved. The hospital voice shouldn't be absent from the conversations that are already happening."

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