Listening and Learning: 5 Best Twitter Practices for Hospital Executives

When Paul Levy first heard about Twitter, he dismissed it as "silly."

"I ignored it," recalls Mr. Levy, former CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. "Why would anyone want to do this, and who would read it?"

His skepticism about the social media site didn't last long, however. Scott Hensley — a current NPR writer and editor who was then working for The Wall Street Journal  — persuaded Mr. Levy to give tweeting a try. Today, the former hospital executive has more than 9,000 followers and sends out healthcare-related tweets several times a day.

During and after his days as a hospital executive, he says Twitter has not only proved to be a fun and informative mode of communication but also a platform for improving Beth Israel's public image as an institution invested in transparency.

Mr. Levy isn't the only one who's used Twitter to revolutionize community connection and the healthcare conversation as a hospital executive. Industry leaders from all corners of the country have joined the social network to share healthcare news, trends and tips. 

"It's an opportunity to educate and offer thought leadership in a typically overwhelming space," says Stephanie Hollingsworth, one of Twitter's senior digital strategists specializing in healthcare. "It's a wide range of audience that allows for that open channel of influence."

Mr. Levy, Ms. Hollingsworth and other social media strategists seem to agree hospital leaders have a lot to gain by opening a Twitter account. Of course, it helps to have some guidance before diving into the network’s fast-paced exchange of bite-sized information. Strategists and executives already on the site have some advice to offer concerning best practices for healthcare leader tweeters.

1.       Consult with your public relations department — but not too much.

As high-profile people with access to plenty of sensitive information, it's important for hospital executives to watch what they say, especially on Twitter, says former hospital COO Christina Thielst, currently vice president at patient experience consulting group Tower and author of "Social Media in Healthcare: Connect, Communicate, and Collaborate."

"Think about what you're saying before you tweet it," Ms. Thielst says. "Really give some thought to what you say and how you're saying it."

Never use profanity or ad hominem attacks, and never break patient privacy rules, Mr. Levy says. On top of that, Twitter users must understand attempting humor is a risky business online. "It's like telling a joke in a foreign language," he says. "You really have to understand that it's a culturally different forum."

Generally, hospital executives already have a good feel for what to say and what not to say in a public forum like Twitter, says Barbara O'Connell, president of Enovasis, an Internet marketing, social media marketing and PR company. "Rely on your own common sense and trust that you are already trained to speak intelligently and carefully," she says.

However, if executives have concerns about privacy or sensitive information and want to double check their own common sense, Ms. O'Connell says they should run the potential tweet by the hospital's public relations or legal department.

Ms. Hollingsworth says consulting internally with the hospital's PR team is important. Executives need to make sure they know what their institution is comfortable sharing.

Still, Ms. Hollingsworth and Ms. O'Connell agree every tweet shouldn't get sent to the PR people. It will cause a lag in the process of sending tweets, a disadvantage when using a platform as instantaneous as Twitter. "You don't want to do that every day," Ms. O'Connell says. "Twitter is real time."

Mr. Levy advises against letting the PR or legal department ghostwrite Tweets. "Never let your PR department write it for you," he says. "It has to be in your own voice."

2.       Use Twitter as a learning and teaching tool.

By selectively following thought leaders in his field, Mr. Levy found a wealth of relevant, up-to-date information through Twitter. A considerable number of healthcare researchers and industry experts maintain feeds, and hospital executives can seek them out and turn Twitter into a channel for keeping up on the latest developments in the field. "Twitter actually made my day more efficient by acting, in essence, as a professional filter," Mr. Levy says about using the network to monitor healthcare news.

Executives can use the network to tune in to a variety of perspectives, Ms. O'Connell says. "They're learning from patients. They’re learning from peers," she says. "There are a lot of healthcare executives and policymakers on Twitter. To hear people's opinions as they're changing is a valuable learning tool."

In turn, executives should take advantage of Twitter's wide reach to share their hospital's discoveries and research, Ms. Hollingsworth says. "Hospitals can share the info they're discovering internally and continue to spread awareness and spread cures and research," she says. "It's something that's really important for institutions and executives to take part in."

Executives can also use Twitter to follow the discussion at conferences they aren't able to attend and to share tidbits of learning with others who aren't when they're attending. "Twitter has shortened the difference between those conferences by allowing that discovery in real time, anywhere across the country," Ms. Hollingsworth says. "Follow along to engage, to share your opinion, to share with your colleagues, to really influence and inform your community."

Mr. Levy regularly live-tweets conferences and says it helps him better absorb what he's hearing as well as inform his followers. "All the people who are following me can in essence participate in what's going on," he says. "People have told me they really appreciate that if they can't get to a conference."

3.       Be personable, but not too personal.

When calibrating the tone of tweets, executives should remember not to come off as too stiff or formal. The mandatory brevity of communication on Twitter means people have to loosen up a little, Mr. Levy reasons, saying, "I think it's really impossible to write 140 characters in anything other than an informal way."

Ms. O'Connell also advocates for lightening up a bit, with the audience in mind. "You're not talking to your board," she says. "You're talking to your neighbor. You're talking to your friends and your family."

Ms. Hollingsworth recommends being professional but relatable. "If you're talking to patients and caregivers and people in your community, speak in language that's simplified and understandable," she says.

While maintaining a casual tone, however, executives should avoid getting too casual with content, Ms. Thielst says. "I would definitely avoid mixing your personal and professional lives," she says. "You don't want to sort of gather this following of people from your community and then start tweeting out every time your son's basketball team wins a game. That's not why people are following you as the administrator of the hospital."

4.       Set your own goals and strategy.

Rather than venturing aimlessly out into the Twitterverse, healthcare leaders need to approach the communication channel with a concrete plan. "Create your own strategy," Ms. Thielst says. "What are you hoping to accomplish with Twitter? What are your expectations?"

Executives looking to set goals can use their hospital's annual objectives, Ms. O'Connell says. Goals pertaining to transparency, community outreach and PR could easily apply to Twitter. Executives could aim to increase traffic to their hospital's websites or to inspire more people to inquire online about appointments.

Achieving those objectives hinges on determining the target audience for tweets, Ms. Hollingsworth says. Depending on whether they target patients, peers or others, the language and content of their tweets could vary significantly. For example, an executive targeting patients might tweet tips for staying well during flu season, while someone talking to other industry leaders might send out links to whitepapers produced by hospital researchers.

5.       Listen carefully and respond to the conversation surrounding your hospital.

Consumers turn to Twitter more to share their experiences, Ms. Thielst says. "More and more people are turning to Twitter while they're sitting in your waiting room," she says. "They're sending out a tweet about what they like and don't like. Whether you like it or not, people are tweeting."

Hospital administrators and executives can improve the patient experience and the public perception of their hospital by engaging with that conversation and responding to tweets about their organizations, she says.

Executives who respond to concerns, complaints and praise on Twitter build up patients' trust and give the impression of transparency, openness and honesty, Ms. O'Connell says. "If you're not addressing questions or comments online, you're basically nonexistent to people," she says.

Conclusion: Twitter helps executives and hospital image 

By following these tips, hospital executives and the organizations they represent can benefit from being active on Twitter.  Mr. Levy feels his presence on Twitter — along with his blog — helped improve people's perception of Beth Israel when he was CEO. "Our hospital was known for being open, candid, transparent," he says. "The social media aspect was part of that."

Ms. Hollingsworth agrees paying attention to feedback from patients and community members is crucial for healthcare leaders. She points to the Cleveland Clinic as an example, saying that the institution's sharing healthcare tips and insight through social media helped change consumers' views of hospitals as "potentially an intimidating space."

"The most important part is just listening, being able to listen to the sentiment of what the conversation is surrounding your company," Ms. Hollingsworth says. "It's really important to care about what they say."

More Articles on Healthcare and Social Media:
20 Hospital and Health System Leaders to Follow on Twitter
MHA Website Ranks Top 50 Social Media-Friendly Hospitals
10 Ways to Ensure HIPAA Compliance on Social Media 

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