U.S. healthcare providers should learn from their overseas colleagues who use social networking to improve care management, engage patients, and communicate with other doctors, CSC report finds.

Ken Terry, Contributor

April 10, 2012

4 Min Read

Is That Healthcare Website Making You Sick?

Is That Healthcare Website Making You Sick?

Is That Healthcare Website Making You Sick? (click image for larger view and for slideshow)

Healthcare organizations in the United States should learn from their peers abroad and expand the use of social media beyond marketing functions, suggests a new report from technology consulting firm CSC.

Around the world, CSC researchers found, healthcare has been less proactive than other industries in embracing social media. Within the healthcare sector, hospitals are furthest ahead in using this new method of engaging with consumers.

Surveyed countries where hospitals are moving fastest in this respect are the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, according to the report. The United States and Austria are in the mid-range of adoption, while Australia, Switzerland, and Germany are described as low adopters.

Within the United States, large, urban, academic, and pediatric hospitals are leading the way in social media. For example, 42% of U.S. hospitals with 400 or more beds use social media, compared to 15% of facilities with fewer than 70 beds. Among major teaching hospitals, 58% have adopted social media vs. 16% of nonteaching hospitals, the report says.

CSC compares these figures to a global survey of the top 100 Fortune 500 companies. "Most reported having a presence on Twitter (65%), Facebook (54%), and YouTube (50%), and a third (33%) indicated having a corporate blog."

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Physicians around the world use social media to communicate with their colleagues and to learn about medical advances. In the United States, social media use is higher among physicians than consumers, but there is relatively little physician-patient interaction through social media.

Caitlin Lorincz, a CSC research analyst and a co-author of the report, told InformationWeek Healthcare that doctors are reluctant to engage with patients in social media because they fear that any health-related information they provide could be "taken out of context and interpreted as medical advice." So rather than increase their malpractice liability, they tend to avoid connecting with patients on Facebook and Twitter.

The CSC report provides examples of healthcare providers that have used social media for a variety of purposes. Among the 15 categories it cites are marketing, workforce recruitment, brand management, reputation management, consumer education, professional education, healthcare community creation, clinical trial recruitment, and research collaboration.

Despite the reluctance of physicians to get involved, CSC notes that social media can also be useful in patient care. The report specifically mentions activities related to wellness, population and patient monitoring, care management, and care coordination.

Some providers, for example, encourage patients to join independent online communities such as PatientsLikeMe in the United States, LeukaNet in Germany, and HealthUnlocked in the United Kingdom. A New Zealand nurse uses a Facebook page to educate teens about sexual health. And the University of Iowa Children's Hospital recently launched a Facebook page that seeks to improve medication adherence among teenage kidney transplant patients.

In the United Kingdom, the National Health Service recently teamed with Cambridge Healthcare to create How Are You?, a social networking site that connects patients with providers, family, and friends. The site prompts patients to enter information about their health status, and they can also use it to create personal health records.

Lorincz says How Are You? shows one way that social media can be deployed in care management: Providers use the site to monitor and check in with patients whose health problems are worsening. She has not yet seen anything like this in the United States, she said.

Is there any evidence that social media can improve health outcomes? While it's still early in the game, Lorincz cited two studies with positive results:

-- An online community for young cancer patients in the Netherlands has led to "higher patient satisfaction, fewer unscheduled visits to the hospital, and, most importantly, more confident young patients."

-- A randomized controlled trial found that, in a program designed to encourage physical activity, the incorporation of an online community reduced attrition from the program.

Lorincz also pointed out that U.S. hospitals are trying to reduce readmissions to avoid Medicare penalties. So they have an incentive to use social media in clinical care "to monitor patients and keep them healthy and engaged."

The 2012 InformationWeek Healthcare IT Priorities Survey finds that grabbing federal incentive dollars and meeting pay-for-performance mandates are the top issues facing IT execs. Find out more in the new, all-digital Time To Deliver issue of InformationWeek Healthcare. (Free registration required.)

About the Author(s)

Ken Terry


Ken Terry is a freelance healthcare writer, specializing in health IT. A former technology editor of Medical Economics Magazine, he is also the author of the book Rx For Healthcare Reform.

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