Do patients like your hospital? Do they really like your hospital?

Sure, those Press Ganey or PRC surveys you get back on patient satisfaction are insightful. And HCAHPS scores shed some light on that all-important "patient experience" measure. But do any of those surveys get at a patient's true feelings about your institution?

No, today, the only way to truly judge how well you are doing is by how many followers and friends you have. Yes, Twitter and Facebook are the new standard-bearers for our social and commercial interactions.

My personal Twitter account has, I think, two followers. What should I expect when I've posted, um, zero tweets since opening it last year. H&HN, on the other hand has 1,127 followers. Our usually technophobic managing editor Bill Santamour is a surprisingly prolific tweeter. It's not a huge following, but it's building day by day.

Close to 140 people have validated my need for acceptance on Facebook. The average Facebook user has 130 friends, so I've got that going for me.

As with most things technological though, I am way behind the curve in how I actually use the applications. My Facebook updates usually consist of items about an 80-mile bike ride, an amusing story about the kids or laments about the Cubs' lost season. Apparently, there are hordes of people using all forms of social media to disclose, discuss and research medical conditions and health care topics. You may have seen a report that Minneapolis-based marketing firm Russell Herder issued last month showing that over a 90-day period, there were 62,893 online self-disclosures of an illness. Russell Herder trolled through publicly accessible blogs, message boards, Twitter and Facebook accounts. Fifty-one percent of the comments appeared on blogs, 30 percent on message boards, 7 percent on Facebook and 7 percent on Twitter. The latter two have privacy protections though, so it's entirely possible that the numbers are much higher.

Lest you think these were willy-nilly posts about hangnails and coughs, 40 percent were about cancer, followed by diabetes at 16 percent. AIDS, asthma, ADHD and arthritis were also on the disclosure list.

Of course, Russell Herder isn't the first to note the phenomenon of consumers using the World Wide Web to find health information.  Pew, the California Healthcare Foundation and others have reported similar results. So what's the takeaway of all of this for providers? Get on board or get left behind.

"For us to just sit on the sidelines wasn't a good idea any more," Teddy Fishbein, interactive marketing director at NorthShore University Health System, told me during a recent interview. The health system, situated just outside of Chicago in Evanston, is getting much more aggressive in its approach to social media. It's using Facebook, Twitter and other sites to connect with patients, provide updates on services offered at the health system and direct people toward educational materials. NorthShore physicians even participate in chats with patients on both Twitter and Facebook.

The health system is also using its affiliation with the Chicago Blackhawks to drive users to its Facebook site. The two recently launched the Hockey Mom of the Year Sweepstakes. Users who choose to "like" either the Blackhawks or NorthShore are entered in the contest. The grand prize winner gets a limo ride, four prime tickets to a Blackhawks game, a team jersey, gift certificates and more. Fishbein says the concept focuses on Mom because all the data show she's most likely to make health care decisions for the family.

Fishbein admits that the health system is in the beginning stages of a social media strategy — about 2,678 people "like" NorthShore — but they are continually thinking about the next steps.

"Our focus in the next couple of years will be on mobile technology," he says. "Everyone is carrying a computer in their pocket that is more powerful than the PC that was on their desk five years ago."