Social media and healthcare are a powerful combination. Social networks have become an important health and information resource. However, they can also become a source of disinformation.
For example, 76% of respondents to a survey said they used social media “at least a little” to learn about COVID-19. However, 63.6% said they were unlikely to check the information they found on social media with a health professional.
Healthcare professionals on social media can both inform the public and help to stop the spread of information that’s untrue.
It can be hard to know how to navigate the challenges of social media in healthcare. Providers, agencies, and brands need to create engaging social content. That content needs to be informative, timely, and accurate. At the same time, you need to follow all relevant rules and regulations.
In this post, we look at the many benefits of using social media in healthcare. We also provide some tips on how to keep your social channels compliant and secure.
Bonus: Get a free, customizable social media policy template to quickly and easily create guidelines for your company and employees.
Social media is a key way to raise public awareness about new, emerging, and annual health concerns.
“Health care systems must provide trusted information on immunization, flu virus, therapy, ebola, you name it.” That solid advice comes from Michael Yoder. He’s the social media consultant for Spectrum Health.
Raising awareness can be as simple as reminding followers about common sense health practices. Or addressing common healthy living concerns.
— Health Canada and PHAC (@GovCanHealth) July 12, 2021
It can also be a good tool for public outreach campaigns, since you can specifically target relevant population groups:
Source: Government of New Brunswick
But when things are changing fast, social media is a key way of ensuring the public is aware of the latest issues, guidelines, and advisories. One way to get the information out there is to share information directly in your social posts.
There are a number of simple steps you can take to reduce the risk of getting bitten by a tick while outside.
🌳 Walk on clear trails
🏃🏽 Wear full sleeves and pants
🦟 Use insect repellent.
Learn more about preventing Lyme disease: https://t.co/TNUzyC69A4 #TickTalk pic.twitter.com/LdjgFly4Ms
— BCCDC (@CDCofBC) July 9, 2021
Another good option is to use social media to direct followers to credible sources of current information. This could mean pointing them to your website, or to public health social accounts.
Please check the NSW Government website regularly: https://t.co/pqkRdfh3cR, as the list of venues of concern and relevant health advice are being updated as investigations continue.
— NSW Health (@NSWHealth) July 12, 2021
Raising awareness about credible sources makes it easier for your followers to counter inappropriate healthcare social media claims they see in posts from their own social connections.
On that note, let’s talk about the elephant in the room when it comes to social media and healthcare communication: misinformation.
Social media by their very nature help spread information quickly to diverse groups of people. That’s great when the information is fact-based, helpful, and clear.
Unfortunately, there’s also a lot of health misinformation on social networks.
Sometimes the misinformation comes in the form of untrue statements. These are relatively easily debunked. You can simply cite published research or the latest information from a credible health source like the CDC or WHO.
But sometimes, the creators and disseminators of misinformation use a reputable institution’s name to give their statements credibility. In this case, it’s important for the institution named as a reference to clarify that they are not the source.
But there’s also misinformation in the form of “facts” presented without context, or in the incorrect context. Again, citing research and information from credible sources is the best approach. But, this may require a softer touch. People are strongly inclined to believe information that supports their existing worldview.
“Sometimes I’ll use [Twitter] to point out obvious misinformation,” Dr. Peter Hotez told the American Medical Association. “But generally I will use it to explain my thinking about an important or emerging infection.”
Here’s Dr. Hotez providing important context on herd immunity to COVID-19:
But it doesn’t quite work that way: If there are significant pockets of unvaccinated individuals in the South or WY ID then delta variant virus transmission accelerates, making schools unsafe, other indoor gatherings. Also allows additional variants to emerge. Everyone suffers. https://t.co/KmaxXIo8TH
— Prof Peter Hotez MD PhD (@PeterHotez) June 24, 2021
More people now get their news from social media than from newspapers. For those aged 29 and younger, social media is the most common source of news, topping all other information sources. That makes social a key place to share breaking information.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, people turned to government health officials for information. Canadian provincial medical health officers have used social media and healthcare communication effectively during this time of crisis.
For example, the Government of British Columbia continues to host press conferences to update the public on the latest news and policies related to the pandemic. The press conferences are streamed in full as Facebook Live videos, as well as on more traditional news outlets.
Live video on social platforms provides a way for those who don’t have access to local TV programming to access announcements in real time.
And pinned posts and cover images can direct people to key resources at a glance.
Source: Government of Alberta
Managing and sharing health information is particularly challenging in a time of crisis. The American Health Lawyers Association, the American Society for Healthcare Risk Management, and the Society for Healthcare Strategy and Market Development suggest that advance preparation is key to an effective crisis response.
Here are some of their key points to help you prepare:
- Identify key stakeholders, a primary contact, and a spokesperson
- Know what to do in the first five minutes of a crisis
- Build trust with your audience—including your internal audience
Expand the reach of existing resources
Medical professionals often learn about new information and best practices through medical journals and conferences. Social media can help expand the reach of these existing information-sharing platforms.
With in-person events cancelled for 2020, the European Society of Intensive Care Medicine (ESICM) created a series of webinars. In addition to a dedicated website, they shared the webinars through live video on YouTube and Facebook. They also live-Tweeted the events.
“As young intensivists, we want to deliver the best care to every patient. For that, we need to gather experiences and share knowledge. But there are too many bureaucratic barriers for intensivists to work abroad.” says Laura Borgstedt, #ESICMNEXT Member. #WeAreICU pic.twitter.com/3xXG3iBOSS
— ESICM (@ESICM) July 7, 2021
ESICM was surprised that some of their highest viewership came from outside Europe. This was an audience they would not have reached through in-person events.
Answer common questions
Health authorities and healthcare organizations are important information sources on various health concerns.
Social tools offer creative ways for healthcare professionals to address common questions. For example, the World Health Organization developed a Facebook Messenger chatbot. It can answer questions, direct citizens to the right resources, and counter misinformation.
Source: World Health Organization
Public health monitoring
People post about everything online, including their health. Hashtags like #flu can reveal when diseases are popping up in new locations. With the right social media monitoring tools, public health organizations can even get a sense of the severity of symptoms.
For example, a spring 2020 study found an association between the number of Tweets mentioning telehealth and the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in a particular state.
Source: Massaad, E., & Cherfan, P. (2020). Social Media Data Analytics on Telehealth During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Cureus, 12(4), e7838.
Professors Michael Paul and Mark Dredze explain how this works in their book, Social Monitoring for Public Health:
“Social media offers advantages over traditional data sources, including real-time data availability, ease of access, and reduced cost. Social media allows us to ask, and answer, questions we never thought possible.”
A recent review study found that health data from social sources has improved disease prediction. That’s especially true for flu and flu-like illnesses.
And a study in the Annual Review of Public Health reported the following:
“While Twitter is by far the most frequently used platform in digital surveillance, many others have been used as well. For example, Facebook ‘like’ patterns correlate strongly with a wide range of health conditions and behaviors, and Instagram timelines have been used to identify adverse drug reactions.”
Social media can also draw attention to crowdsourcing health data initiatives like Outbreaks Near Me.
Curious about self-reported #flu or #COVID19 symptoms around you? @OutbreaksNearMe helps tracks illnesses in your area. Access a map that tracks anonymously reported symptoms & add to the secure data by reporting how you’re feeling: https://t.co/PFGLjx3FFe pic.twitter.com/0PyVDQZynY
— CDC Flu (@CDCFlu) March 24, 2021
Healthcare issues can be tricky to talk about, even with doctors. That’s especially true for subjects like mental health, where social stigma can prevent people from seeking the professional support they need.
During the pandemic, JanSport created a series of resources using the hashtag #LightenTheLoad. The goal for the backpack company was to support its young customers, starting in the 2020 back-to-school season that wasn’t.
Through the campaign, they provided access to mental health resources for young people, including a series of Instagram Live chats with professional therapists.
This is a good example of how healthcare professionals can partner with brands outside the healthcare sphere on social.
They also provided information on how people could reach crisis support if needed.
Here’s another example. A coalition of more than 1,000 organizations and healthcare institutions launched a campaign under the banner The Fight Is In Us. The goal was to encourage people who had recovered from COVID-19 to donate their plasma for its valuable antibodies.
Running a host of celebrity-based ads across Facebook and Instagram, the campaign reached 3.95 million people.
Nearly 40% of young people (ages 14 to 22) have used online tools to connect with others with similar health challenges. That includes social media groups.
That connection can have real benefits for patients. A recent study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health examined the effects of Facebook and WhatsApp groups in supporting veterans’ PTSD. Many of the study participants expressed ways in which they received support from these groups:
“At 10 o’clock at night, I messaged the group and got instant responses. The group knows what’s going on. Yes, we know each other so well.”
“If I leave the WhatsApp group, I will immediately get a message from the admin, ‘What happened, everything okay?’ If you leave, you have to go through a person. Even if you don’t feel like it, you have to say what’s going on.”
Of course, there are privacy concerns when discussing health online. This could be a good use of Facebook secret groups, which do not show up in search results. Users have to be invited to join.
Social networks offer an opportunity to connect with potential study and survey participants.
Like brands, researchers and healthcare organizations need to understand social media demographics. Combined with social ad targeting options, this allows you to connect with the right audience for studies and surveys.
Connected & Open Research Ethics is a project of the University of California San Diego. The group helps researchers establish guidelines for ethical research using new digital tools. Social networks are among those tools.
62% of U.S. healthcare marketers identified social media as the marketing channel with the most potential opportunity in 2020.
Source: 2021 MM+M/HealthLink Dimensions Healthcare Marketers Survey
CVS partnered with WebMD on a Twitter campaign that benefitted both brands. CVS sponsored WebMD content, including through a custom Twitter Amplify partnership that brought in 30-million pre-roll video ad views for CVS.
— WebMD (@WebMD) January 28, 2021
Social media tips for healthcare organizations
Educate and share valuable content
As we said above, many people turn to social media for information in times of crisis. At the start of 2020, Twitter conversations about health and wellness increased 54%.
But to engage with the public for the long term, you need to regularly provide valuable content that educates and informs.
For example, the Mayo Clinic creates a social video series to cover popular health and wellness topics. The “Mayo Clinic Minutes” are short, informative, and engaging. The videos regularly rack up more than 10,000 views.
The information needs to be credible, of course. And true. But you can get creative and entertaining if that makes sense for your brand.
For example, Dr. Zubin Damania is better known on social as ZDoggMD. His well-produced social videos provide valuable health information while countering questionable and untrue claims. He has built a community of more than 2.3 million followers on his Facebook page.
To lighten up what could otherwise become a fairly heavy page, he also posts comedic videos from his alter ego Doc Vader:
Make sure the tone you use is appropriate for your brand personality. The Mayo Clinic videos and the Doc Vader videos are both engaging in their own way. But it would be very jarring if they exchanged styles.
Also make sure you choose the right channel for your message and your intended audience. For example, a recent study from Saudi Arabia found the most popular social networks for sharing information about a healthy diet are:
Listen for relevant conversations
Social listening allows you to track social media conversations relevant to your field.
Those conversations can help you understand how people feel about you, your organization, and your products and services. You can also learn how they feel about the competition. You might even identify new ideas that help guide your social communications strategy.
Social listening is also a good use of social media in healthcare to get a sense of how the public is responding to emergent health issues.
For example, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) uses social listening to track health-related trends. This helped them validate telehealth as a priority — they saw 2,000 mentions of the term across social platforms.
“We already knew that GPs felt this was a component of care that they needed to continue providing to patients,” said RACGP. “We provided our social listening insights to validate that the wider general practice community felt the same way.”
Here are some key terms to listen for on social channels:
- Your organization or practice name and handles
- Your product name(s), including common misspellings
- Your competitors’ brand names, product names, and handles
- Industry buzzwords: The Healthcare Hashtag Project is a great place to start.
- Your slogan and those of your competitors
- Names of key people in your organization (your CEO, spokesperson, etc.)
- Names of key people in your competitors’ organizations
- Campaign names or keywords
- Your branded hashtags and those of your competitors
Social media management platforms like Hootsuite allow you to monitor all relevant keywords and phrases across social networks from a single platform.
For more tips and tools on this, check out our guide on how to set up a social listening strategy.
One of the big challenges of social media in healthcare is that healthcare social media accounts are subject to strict rules and regulations. HIPAA compliance is a big one, but you also need to make sure you follow FDA rules about advertising.
One of the best-known examples of social media and healthcare clashing in the eye of authorities involves Kim Kardashian. She endorsed the morning sickness drug Diclegis in an Instagram post. Her post contained a link to risk information and limitations of use. But, the FDA determined this information needed to be within the post itself.
After a stern FDA warning, she had to replace the post. Here’s the updated version after the FDA warning:
By the time Kim’s sister Khloe Kardashian endorsed the migraine medication Nurtec ODT on Twitter this year, pharma companies had figured out how to effectively include risk information within a video post:
Guys!! Major News!!! ⭐️You all know how Thankful I am for Nurtec® ODT (rimegepant) 75 mg!! And how much I LOVE my commercials with my tutu ￼🥰Now I feel even more grateful!! If thats even possible🙏🏼￼￼Thank you @NurtecODT #NurtecODT 💜￼￼￼ #MHAM PI: https://t.co/pZbLyDejbH pic.twitter.com/sOkJFSOj6r
— Khloé (@khloekardashian) June 8, 2021
But it’s not just celebrity endorsements that can raise FDA concerns. For example, so far in 2021, the FDA has sent 21 warning letters that specifically reference claims made on Instagram accounts.
You don’t want lawyers writing your social media posts. But you might want lawyers (or other compliance experts) to review posts before they go live. This is especially true for major announcements or posts that are particularly sensitive.
Hootsuite can get more of your team involved without increasing compliance risk. People from across your organization can contribute social media content. Then, only those who understand the compliance rules can approve a post or push it live.
Your organization needs a social media strategy and a social media style guide.
You should also have guidelines for the use of social media for healthcare professionals. A social media policy for healthcare employees is also a good bet.
These help get everyone on the same page and ensure your strategy aligns with relevant rules and regulations. Include clear, HIPAA-compliant guidelines for handling patient information in social posts.
Don’t forget to keep an eye on the comments users leave on your social media posts and profiles, too. These can also create compliance concerns.
It’s always good practice to respond to and engage with social comments. After all, no one likes talking into a void. Your followers will be more likely to engage with your content if they get a response from someone on your team.
When compliance is involved, you may need to take extra steps. For example, you should remove comments that raise privacy concerns. Also watch out for inappropriate claims.
It’s important to put security guidelines in place for your healthcare social media channels. You need to be able to revoke access for anyone who leaves the organization.
With Hootsuite, you can manage permissions from one centralized dashboard. That means you can always control access to social channels. Here’s a video that shows how to set up organizational permissions in Hootsuite:
Integrations can help further secure your healthcare social media marketing channels. For instance, AETracker can help you find and report issues like product complaints and off-label usage. You’ll find out as they happen, so you can take action right away.
Social Safeguard can help screen your social posts against your social media policies. This prevents non-compliant posts from going live.
The simple truth is that patients and the public use social media to find healthcare resources. They use it to look for information, find support, and make healthcare decisions.
There are some challenges of social media in healthcare. But the use of social media in healthcare also presents incredible new opportunities.
Social media is a great platform to share important health information. It’s also a key place to gather real-time research and insights. Most important, social media is a way to support patients and the public in an easy-to-access and timely way.
Hootsuite makes it easy for healthcare professionals and organizations to manage social media. From a single dashboard you can schedule posts on every network, monitor relevant conversations, and track performance—all while staying secure and compliant.
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