To tweet, or not to tweet? That is the question! …the NHS is asking

The impact of social media could be discussed until the cows come home but do any of us really know if what we are doing is right? There are now so many different social platforms, differentiating which one works in which scenario is becoming a science that only experts can fathom.

What is clear is that the use of social media continues to increase. It took 38 years for radio to reach 50 million listeners; 13 years for terrestrial TV to reach 50 million viewers; four years for the internet to reach 50 million people; and just one year for Facebook to add 200 million users! The speed at which it has grown and continues to do so, cannot be ignored. The traditional methods of communicating, engaging with customers and marketing are changing and we need to keep up with the pace.

Health and social…media?
The healthcare industry is no different. The advent of social media has paved the way for instant feedback – something that can have both a positive and negative effect on the market. In a recent event hosted by web services agency Klood Digital (@klood_digital ), Ben Pathe (@BenP1972) from Patient Opinion (@patientopinion), discussed best practice when responding to patients via social media.

‘Key to an appropriate response,’ explains Pathe, ‘is showing empathy and understanding’. Those using social media usually just want an acknowledgement that they are being listened to. It is not always necessary to provide them with a solution. Apologising (if appropriate) and explaining why something may have happened is also an acceptable response.

It could simply be that the author is seeking confirmation that something has been done correctly or within standard guidelines. It is also important to explain what you are going to do with their feedback and demonstrate how it will be used to improve the service. If social media users feel the comment has been taken seriously and will actually make a difference, they are more likely to be content with the response and not escalate negative feedback further.

Social media managers or ‘gatekeepers’ should try to recognise any potentially sensitive situation and ‘nip it in the bud’ with an effective answer – this will stand you in good stead with your audience. Going one step further and making suggestions as to what the author should do next will show them that you have really thought about their issue and want to ensure that they are happy with the response – much like good customer service. Lastly, Pathe explains that where a post required an action, an update should be provided once something has been done. Again, this will reiterate that their feedback is important and more importantly has been acted upon.

What’s the hold up?
Given the potential power of social media, why are so many people within the healthcare market still reluctant to use it? Not all social media engagement is responding to complaints. Dr Mark Newbold (@drmarknewbold), CEO of Heart of England NHS Foundation Trust (@heartofengland), believes social media builds a regular dialogue, making managers more accessible and transparent. His ethos is one of trust and understanding with both patients and the staff he works with. Dr Newbold is a forward thinking CEO with regard to communication but certainly not representative of the NHS as a whole, at this time.

So how can we encourage more senior healthcare personnel to get involved? Twitter has 580 million users worldwide – that is equivalent to the population of Russia! Of those users, 140 million actively participate. 43% of active users are using Twitter to share news or information about a brand and there is a 33% chance that those users will recommend that brand. A survey by PwC in 2012 found that 42% of consumers have used social media to access health-related consumer reviews. It also found that 32% have used social media to view family/friend health experiences. Probably most pertinent to healthcare managers is that 29% have used social media to seek information related to other patients’ experiences with their disease. That is an undeniably strong message for healthcare managers to take heed of and justifies why social media engagement is becoming a ‘must do’ rather than a ‘nice to have’.

What could put people off using social media however, is a lack of understanding as to what it involves. There is a common misconception that social media users need to constantly monitor it, contribute to discussions and post personal-identifiable information. This is not always necessary.

Research by Klood also suggests that brands that post one or two times a day see a 19% increase in interaction rates than those who post three or four times daily. It just goes to show that the old adage of quality not quantity still applies. What is also important is to post information at the right time. The trick is to identify when people engage the most and then post more on those days (and less on others). Klood also found that engagement across all industries was higher at weekends and dipped mid-week.

All this sounds like hard work but users are turning to social media for advice and using these channels to express their feelings about issues they are unhappy with – it is a very vocal platform. And social media is not only accessed by consumers but also the press. There is no prevention or control over what users say, but by engaging with them there are opportunities to shape the conversation and diffuse any potential issue. Happy people are less likely to shout about it!

A social marketplace?
There is clearly a place for social media in healthcare, which is even more apparent when considering the following survey results by Pharmacy2U Online Doctor service:

  • 41% of people self-diagnose via the internet.
  • 1 in 10 admitted to making illness/injury worse by self-treatment.
  • 65% of adults would rather suffer in silence than endure face-to-face consultations with their doctor.
  • 76% of people would rather talk to a doctor online to seek minor advice or to discuss an intimate issue.
  • 63% of people that Google their headache symptoms will self-diagnose a brain tumour.

Social media has raised consumer expectations; with increased access to medical information comes new responsibility and expectations for transparency from healthcare professionals. The list of what to do and when to do it is endless. What is certain is that having a social media policy in place for your organisation is essential. In a time when information can be made public in an instant, it is crucial that everyone within an organisation is aware of the implications of social media. The types and timing of messages defines a company’s place within the market. Public perception is derived from publicly available information. The key is to listen, participate and engage.

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