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Healthcare communications professionals have been slow to join social media party. Regulatory, legal and ethical concerns pose major deterrents. Medical professionals must avoid revealing patient data due to privacy laws and want to avoid even the appearance of offering a diagnosis online. Social media conversations occur in real time, yet obtaining approval for a tweet from regulatory compliance teams can take days.

Fear poses another barrier, especially given the intense scrutiny healthcare organizations receive. “Social is a wild animal, and once you let it out of the cage, you need to be prepared to fight back,” Suzanne Barston, manager, corporate journalism, corporate communications at AbbVie told PR News.

The Need to Spread Accurate Healthcare Information

Most physicians and other healthcare professionals use social media to locate and read helpful information. Few use the platforms to publish or promote content or answer questions, research indicates. Some communications experts urge health care organizations and medical professionals to join the social media world. Health care groups may take on more responsibility to counter the pervasive misinformation promoted online.

One media monitoring company, CyberAlert (now doing business as got its start in 1997 because a product manager at a major pharmaceutical company wanted to identify and refute dangerous misinformation about his anesthesiology product being posted on internet message boards by physicians. CyberAlert developed one of the first online media monitoring services and has since expanded to cover virtually all media.

“The Internet is full of nonsense, hype, clickbait and ridiculous information about all kinds of health and medical elixirs and remedies that have no basis in fact,” Art Caplan of the division of medical ethics at the School of Medicine at New York University told Ad Week. “If you think about it, how often do you actually see a doctor, an established scientist out there, trying to correct or engage the public with scientific, verified, evidence-based information?”

Not all medical organizations avoid publishing and promoting consumer health education. Major medical centers such as Mayo Clinic include extensive health education for consumers on their websites including comprehensive guides to diseases and conditions. The guides rank high in Google search results. Mayo uses Twitter (@mayoclinic) and Facebook ( almost daily to generate traffic to its educational materials and recent research findings.

Since medical specialists often lack the time and expertise to craft quality content and delve into social media activities, it’s incumbent on healthcare communications professionals to lead their organizations into consumer education campaigns on social media.

Here’s how healthcare organizations can participate on social media.

Share Content and Expertise

Medical experts can answer questions on disease- or condition-specific Facebook groups and other online forums, says Swati Bhaskar, co-founder and managing partner of Asentech. They can also use hashtags social media listening tools to find relevant discussions.

An active social media presence creates a sort of online biography. “Managing one’s online reputation is essential as patients now turn to the Internet for information before choosing a doctor,” Bhaskar says.

Although specific patient information requires written permission to release, healthcare organizations can share general information on flu shots, tips to avoid a cold, and advice about health hazards. The primary goal is to educate the consumer. In doing that, the organization can subtly promote its service – with the operative word being “subtly.”

Social media offers an outstanding venue for promoting brand journalism content communications professionals create for their websites. Brand journalism entails a neutral, journalistic tone that lacks marketing speak and corporate lingo to educate stakeholders and publicize the organization’s good deeds. Barston wrote a story about two retired scientists who returned to the lab to work on a pro bono development effort for a neglected tropical disease. The article lead to a feature in a prominent local magazine. Ensuing media attention was so successful, one scientist soon declined further media interviews, saying he needed to return to his medical work.

Post educational content when attention is already on your company, she advises. Releasing content close to earnings calls or significant announcements will gain more attention that simply issuing it with a press release.

With the help of professional communicators, medical experts can publish in-depth, original content on pressing health matters. That will establish them as thought leaders and authorities in their specialty, which will lead to more patients for the organizations.

Social media can spread information quickly during a crisis. Hospitals and other organizations can deliver real-time updates on hospital capacity, operation status and emergency room access. Healthcare communication professionals can release information shared by organizations such as the Red Cross and communicate with news outlets.

Improve Services and Products

Healthcare organizations can evaluate competitors and seek information about the services they offer and overall patient satisfaction. They can then mimic those practices to enhance their own. Companies in other industries have learned that competitive intelligence gained through social media monitoring and measurement provides a competitive advantage.

Healthcare organizations can gather patient feedback about their medical services to find areas needing improvement. Through social media listening, pharmaceutical companies can learn how patients respond to medications and spot emerging crises if patients mention unexpected reactions. While some pharmaceutical companies hesitate to embrace social media listening due to concerns about reporting adverse events, those events are relatively rare and their fears are overblown, experts say.

Some healthcare organizations have started using social media channels for training. During presentations, trainees use Twitter hashtags or join other groups to ask questions and interact with others, according to the University of Scranton. Participants can provide presenters immediate feedback on training sessions. Organizations can use training videos and pictures from training sessions to educate audiences and showcase their facilities and innovative training approaches.

Overcoming Disadvantages of Social Media

Social media is time-consuming and measuring its benefits can be difficult. However, measurement has become easier due to new social media monitoring and measurement tools.

“While concrete figures are hard to produce, seeing yourself as a thought leader that people use as a resource is often enough of a return,” writes Irfan Jafrey, CEO and founder of social media marketing platform Roosterly, in Forbes. People will go to doctors they consider experts in their field, he notes.

“After weighing the benefits of increased social media engagement against the risks, more physicians are deciding to log on and connect,” Bhaskar says.

Bottom Line: Healthcare organizations and individual medical professionals can gain substantial benefits from social media. Social media has become a leading channel for disseminating health information, promoting organizations and establishing doctors as top experts in their specialties. However, healthcare organizations need the talents of communications professionals to optimize those benefits.