The 140 Characters Conundrum: Tapping Social Media in Regulated Sectors Like Healthcare

By Dan Carter, Executive Vice President, Racepoint Group

Ask any communications professional if the rise of social media in last two to three years has completely changed their craft and an overwhelming majority will say, “Yes!” Social media has created a renaissance in public relations and marketing and it’s an exciting time to be a health care communicator. Buyers and users of health products and services are more plugged in than ever before and have the ability make or break a company’s reputation in 140 characters or less. They are in the driver’s seat and it’s our job to help our organizations navigate this new communications landscape in a way that is meaningful, impactful and most importantly, transparent.

In this article, we’ll examine the impact of social media in healthcare, in particular, and discuss how communicators can successfully navigating through regulatory issues and adapt and thrive in this new landscape.

Diagnosing Illness through Social Media

When we start to feel sick, our first reaction isn’t necessarily to call the doctor’s office to make an appointment. More and more, people are turning to social networks and online resources such as WebMD to find an explanation for their symptoms.

All it takes is a quick post or status update, “I have the chills and feel nauseous, but no fever” or “I have a sharp pain in my knee when I stand up and walk around, but its fine when I sit down,” to get a quick diagnosis from friends. While responses may not be completely accurate, they will come from trusted sources that may have experienced similar symptoms, and can offer advice or suggestions. Some people may try to diagnosis the illness, other will make suggestions, and some will simply take pity—but in either case it is healthcare—social media style.

So what does this mean for doctors and us as professional communicators? When Internet-savvy patients come to a doctor’s office with specific problems, it’s likely that they’ll already have an idea of what their problem could be. Doctors can assume that many of their patients have already done some preliminary research online through sites such as Wikipedia to educate themselves before visiting the doctor. Armed with these new tools, patients no longer have to simply accept a doctor’s medical diagnosis; they will ask questions, potentially debate their diagnosis, and crowdsource for the best treatment options. And with popular resources and sites including PatientsLikeMe, CureTogether and Inspire cropping up every few months, the patient can only become more empowered.

While addressing patient questions from this new wealth of online information may result in more work for doctors, it also creates a society that is more in tune with and interested in medicine, as people educate themselves and others about their conditions. It can improve doctor-patient dialogue, increase knowledge of and access to new treatment options, and result in healthier people taking a more vested interest in the health and well being of themselves and their friends.

So what does this mean for health care communicators? It means that consumers will be visiting corporate websites, relevant online resources and social media channels to find the health information they’re seeking. Healthcare communicators must understand that in order to maintain competitive advantage, they must encourage and educate those directly interacting with patients to embrace social media. Healthcare companies that show their willingness to meet current and potential patients where they are already seeking information—online and across social networks—in a helpful and fully transparent way will reap the benefits of higher customer loyalty and satisfaction.

Hospitals Are Involved in Social Media—Even If They Aren’t

Medical institutions such as hospitals have in general been slower to adapt to social media than other organizations. However, just because a hospital is not actually participating in social media channels does not mean they aren’t involved in social media.

Social networks are not just platforms to distribute or broadcast content—more importantly, they are platforms for sharing. When patients visit hospitals, they share their experiences on social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and Yelp. This can come in the form of a location-based check-in, analysis of how well (or poorly) they’ve been treated, or rating of their overall experience. Patients will share information with their network about long (or short) waiting times, how friendly (or unfriendly) the staff was, and discuss whether or not the needs of their visit were met, no matter if the hospital has a social media plan or not.

Therefore, it’s vital that hospital communications staff use social media to monitor hospital mentions and feedback and engage with patients. If reviews on Yelp advise that one hospital has a particularly long waiting time or unfriendly staff, patients will likely go to another, higher-rated hospital. However, if a hospital has rave reviews on a social network (or even if it’s noted how easy parking is), it should attract additional patients. Furthermore, people trust the opinions of their friends and those in their network, and a positive or negative comment on Facebook or Twitter could influence where patients go for future hospital visits.

It’s important to understand that even if a hospital isn’t actively participating in social media or doesn’t have a strategy in place, it isn’t absent from social media. Even if a hospital’s strategy is to simply monitor and respond to negative comments online, or to provide information and alerts about waiting room times, or to answer basic non-medical patient questions, it will help show patients that the hospital is there for them and can offer support.

The bottom line is that it is impossible to avoid social media and detrimental to a hospital to ignore customer feedback, so healthcare communications teams (and others) should proactively get involved in social media and build baseline strategies to help shape the image of their organization and build a positive online reputation—before their competitors beat them to it!

Dan Carter is executive vice president of Racepoint Group, a global public and social media relations agency with extensive expertise in health care, technology and life sciences. Dan is also co-founder of Health Care 3.0, an online community with its finger on the pulse of health care on the social Web. You can contact Dan at or on Twitter @danrpg.



  1. financial aid for college on December 21, 2010 at 12:01 pm

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  2. Quora on January 18, 2011 at 8:20 pm

    What is the best use of Twitter for hospitals?…

    At the most basic level, hospitals should certainly be monitoring mentions and feedback across social media channels. Customer service can’t be improved if you don’t know what people are saying about you! This recent blog post by Racepoint Group EVP …