Paging Dr. Facebook

Since joining Facebook this past summer, i5 web works has endeavored to learn as much as possible about the impact that the social networking phenomenon is having on business promotion. Our conclusion? Even though there’s no way to measure how Facebook, Twitter, et al are driving customers to your business, social marketing is nevertheless a great way to communicate with hundreds (or even thousands) of people about your brand in real-time and a free way to advertise your services.

As I’ve mentioned before, i5 web works offers a social networking set up and maintainence service, and we’ve discovered that it’s usually fairly simple to concoct content for companies to share with the masses since most of them are free to talk about most every service they provide. Organizations in one sector of the market, though, must be discreet about what they post online or risk incurring the ire of Uncle Sam.
The medical community is bound by HIPAA laws and professional ethics to keep patient information private and to maintain an appropriately distant doctor-patient relationship. In recent months, a number of outlets have reported that medical students (and even some doctors) have revealed inappropriate information about themselves and/or their patients on social networks. However, this does not mean that the medical community is prohibited from enjoying the advantages of social marketing. In fact, this Hospital Social Networking List currently contains links to over 241 Facebook Pages, 323 Twitter accounts, and 213 YouTube channels of state licensed hospitals, and more hospitals are being added to the list daily.
And just how are doctors and hospitals using these social networking tools? By posting tips about staying healthy, links to helpful information and articles about medical breakthroughs, and pictures from events (like Race for the Cure and toy drives) that the staff has either participated in or hosted. Some doctors have even tweeted during heart surgery (without revealing any indentifying personal information, of course) and others have used social networks to update their patients about the swine flu.

Truth be told, there is so much that medical professionals can share on social networks that they might be hard pressed to find time to update their accounts with all of the information. I5 web works has the time and the skills to maintain medical social network accounts and keep patients informed.

According to Pew, social networks are two-way streets. Sure, doctors and hospitals can use them to tout their services and establish legitimacy, but more often than not, web-savvy patients (sometimes referred to as “e-patients”) search social networks for information related to their illness and wellness. Gone are the days of calling mom about a lingering cold or asking the neighbor which SPF to take to the beach. Now, Pew reports, “some 61 percent of Americans go online for health information,” and 20 percent of those web users read blogs, listen to podcasts, and pose questions in their Facebook statues to find the answers to health-related questions. Thirty-five percent of adults have social network accounts, but many social media enthusiasts are minorities and young folks who might be more prone to visit Google than their physicians when health issues arise. By updating social network pages with health and wellness tips, doctors and hospitals make reliable information available to e-patients who might have otherwise found flimsy advice elsewhere on the Web. Once a patient finds a helpful tip on a healthcare provider’s social network page, he or she can easily pass the source on to others.

Once they’re comfortable on a social network or two, healthcare providers can also use them to connect patients with support groups that could offer encouragement and sympathy. Online support groups are particularly useful for patients who are homebound or suffer from especially rare diseases and also serve to augment the doctor-patient relationship, but they aren’t the only support options available to doctors and hospitals on social networks. The CDC recently found that people who received daily reminders via social media to wear sunscreen were twice as likely to do so as those who did not receive reminders. Doctors and hospitals, too, could use social media to promote healthy behavior and post encouraging tips for those struggling with disease.

Many doctors don’t have time to tweet and Facebook the workday away, and some who have personal social network accounts fear that patients will use them to seek advice and diagnoses when their physicians are out of the office and off the clock. There are a few doctors who don’t mind occasionally receiving private Facebook messages from patients with minor bumps and bruises, but the best solution for those who do mind is a professional social network account like a Facebook Fan page or specialized Twitter account. Doctors can pass the responsibilities of maintaining these accounts to qualified companies (like i5 web works), direct their patients to these pages when they’re seeking health information, and reserve their personal pages for interactions with friends and family.