Photos, gripes and games pepper Facebook News Feeds, but more hospitals are turning to the popular site and other social media tools to give patients accurate health information.

As of January, 906 hospitals maintained nearly 3,100 social networking sites, according to Ed Bennett, University of Maryland Medical Center Web manager, who follows health care social media closely. A 2010 Emerging Media Task Force report for the Society for Healthcare Strategy & Market Development also reported nearly 30 percent of more than 100 surveyed hospitals had dedicated social media staff.

"Social media tools are very important in health care," says Ben Dillon, vice president of Web-technology company Geonetric. "It's a mindset of fishing where the fish are. You have to reach out to your audience because they're living online."

WakeMed Health & Hospitals in Raleigh, N.C., launched its Facebook, Twitter and blog efforts for those reasons, says Debbie Laughery, public relations vice president. The hospital went online in April 2009, but providing health information was not the initial focus.

"We didn't set out to publish health information to educate patients. We wanted an open dialogue with our community," Laughery says. "But we've tracked that patients frequently click on our posts related to specific health issues."

YouTube also can be an effective tool. Gunderson Lutheran Health System in La Crosse, Wis., uses it to share physician interviews, health care tips and videos of events, including the local breast cancer walk, says Barb Janett, Gunderson's marketing manager. The videos easily alert patients to services or events that affect them.

Although hospitals use social media, not all optimize its power. A recent study of 120 hospitals conducted by Verasoni Ah Ha! Insights discovered less than 40 percent of hospitals posted daily, and 80 percent did not engage patients online directly. Implementing social media incorrectly is worse than ignoring it, says Jamey Shiels, director of social media and digital communications at Aurora Health Care, Milwaukee. Having a strategy, such as an editorial calendar is vital, he says.

"Only give people interested and engaged in social media the responsibility for producing and posting content," Shiels says. "Find opportunities for pushing information to differentiate yourself. Your social media will fail unless you have engaged buy-in and offer something unique."

However, businesses exist to help smaller hospitals keep their content updated. These systems automatically post evidence-based data and track site traffic for online profiles. The pitfall, Shiels says, is the company does not always publish information the hospital wants to promote.