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Love it or hate it, Facebook is no longer a platform that your hospital can ignore. The reason is simple and follows the old marketing adage: Go where the customers are.

Patients and families turn to the Internet for health information and increasingly are using social media to educate themselves about their health care needs. Consumers also use social media to share experiences — good and bad — about their health care encounters. "If someone is unhappy, they will turn to social media," says Nancy Jean, senior media relations officer, social media, for Lifespan, Providence, R.I. "If you are not there, you don't know what people are saying about you."

About 1,300 hospitals have Facebook pages, according to the Social Media Health Network, a project of the Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media, Rochester, Minn. The network provides guidance to health care organizations that want to apply social media in health and health care. The primary reasons for hospitals branching into social media include the ability to connect with their patients and communities and to build brand awareness, loyalty and market share.

Indeed, social media enables hospitals and health systems to connect with their communities like never before. "Our experience has been nothing short of astounding," says Taylor Wilson, senior media relations coordinator, Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha. "We have patients contact physicians because they've seen their YouTube video. That was our idea when we started, to let people know who we are and what we do."

Yet, hospitals' use of social media raises some concerns. The biggest fear is Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act violations. It's important for health care organizations to establish a social media policy and employee guide that addresses the implications of sharing patient information in social media forums. Notes Jean, "Employees have to follow the same HIPAA regulations, regardless of where they are and what they are doing."

Teddy Fishbein, director of interactive marketing, NorthShore University HealthSystem, Evanston, Ill., agrees. "We set the expectation that people conduct themselves on social media in the same manner as they would over the phone or in person."

Before getting started, it's important for hospitals and health systems to set clear objectives for the social media program. The objectives should align with the organization's mission and vision. Another key step is determining who can respond on behalf of the organization, as well as establish response protocols. Social media is a form of two-way communication and patients should receive responses in a timely manner.

Social media also can serve as an effective means of communication during a crisis. During an on-campus shooting in November, Children's Hospital of Wisconsin posted updates on Facebook and Twitter to alert the public and employees about the situation. The organization posted announcements that the facility was on lockdown and released statements from the chief executive and chief medical officers.

"Social media enabled us to get the message out faster," says Neal Linkon, director of interactive marketing for the Milwaukee organization. "It was very effective."

Four key steps to launching a social media program

1. Develop a social media policy prior to launch.

The development of a social media policy is an important first step to help mitigate risk. At a minimum, the policy should stress that employee use of social media must adhere to the organization's policies and procedures and relevant state and federal regulations. It's also recommended to post a public disclaimer to establish rules for posting on the organization's site and informing the public not to take the information as medical advice.

2. Implement a response protocol.

Health care consumers expect timely responses to their comments or queries. Guidelines should be in place to establish a response protocol to ensure appropriate monitoring and responsiveness.

3. Set clear and measurable goals.

Social media goals should align with the organization's strategic goals and mission.

4. Create a content development plan.

A content development plan outlines the schedule for the organization's social media efforts. The plan should highlight timely activities and events, such as Breast Cancer Awareness Month or summer safety tips. This is in addition to social media response to more current, trending events.

Insights From The Field

Peter Taylor
Director of Marketing
Sarasota (Fla.) Memorial Health Care System

"Traditional marketing has to be perfect. Social media is less obsessed with perfection. It's about interacting in the here and now."

"We now have an opportunity to engage patients before they show up at our facility. It's a good way to promote wellness."

Neal Linkon
Director, Interactive Marketing
Children's Hospital of Wisconsin

"Our Facebook audience is not homogenous. We do our best to provide a broad range of topics to generate interest."

"Be personal and respond as a person and not as an institution."

"My biggest surprise was how much detail people are willing to share online."

Taylor Wilson
Senior Media Relations Coordinator
Nebraska Medical Center

"Our Facebook following has grown exponentially in the last year and a half. Our followers are engaged with what we do. It's eye-opening to see how many supportive people are out there."

"Be personal. Show people that you care and are trying to help."

Teddy Fishbein
Director of Interactive Marketing
NorthShore University HealthSystem
Evanston, Ill.

"Make sure there is consistency in message delivery."

"Encourage physicians to develop their own social media presence, particularly on Twitter."

"Early on, we were not creating content that resonated with our consumers. It's important to create health and wellness information, rather than health care information."

"One of the biggest challenges is measuring the return on investment. It's difficult to determine. Just because someone 'likes' us, doesn't mean they are going to seek our services."

Nancy Jean
Senior Media Senior Relations Officer
Social Media at Lifespan
Providence, R.I.

"Social media is one more tool to support the organization. We use experts to talk about the news of the day, but also to promote brand recognition and customer service."

"It's important to review your social media platforms at least once a month to see what worked and what didn't work."

"This is a big undertaking and many organizations are scared of risk. But if you aren't listening and responding to what people are saying, that's a big risk."