The use of social media is gaining purchase in the U.S. healthcare industry – and more recently that includes government and public health agencies. Which is not to say that they are keeping pace with the private sector.
As federal entities such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI), for instance, roll out social media tools, managers are looking for ways to further integrate the communications platform from a public relations and marketing function into core services, health industry and government experts say.
Wen-Ying Sylvia Chou, a program director with the Health Communication and Informatics Research Branch at the NCI, said government agencies are working hard to add social media initiatives to mainstream collaboration and services at NCI.
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She pointed to a social media program introduced by the CDC called Zombie Preparedness that included a Web site, blogs, a novella and a Facebook page to help communicate what might otherwise be dry information about disaster preparedness.
Although still in early stages throughout the public and private healthcare sectors, social media is making strides in the fray, according to a report by the Health Research Institute at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) US, the global professional services and accounting firm.
Increased usage of social media is shown in the report as 42 percent of consumers pooled said they have used social media to access health-related consumer reviews such as ratings of physicians; 25 percent have posted about their health experience; and 20 percent have joined a health forum or community.
For the report, PwC questioned more than 1,000 consumers, 30 industry executives and 124 members of the eHealth Initiative (eHI), a national association of industry organizations focusing on health information and technology.
As social media becomes more commonplace, it’s gaining the trust of consumers, with 61 percent likely to trust information posted by providers and 41 percent likely to share information with providers.
Users are not tapping industry sites as frequently as community sites, however, with community sites having 24 times more social media activity than health industries companies during the week-long survey period, the report said.
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Social media tends to be driven by marketing and communications departments, with the majority of respondents saying their social media efforts were organized by these departments. Half of those interviewed expressed concern about how to integrate social media into business activity and to link it with return on investment.
"Health organizations have an opportunity to use social media as a way to better listen, participate in discussions and engage with consumers in ways that extend their interaction beyond a clinical encounter,” Kelly Barnes, U.S. Health Industries leader of PwC, said in a statement accompanying the report. “Savvy adopters are viewing social media as a business strategy, not just a marketing tool."
Likewise, government agencies are developing social media strategies to deliver more services to consumers and to collaborate within their organizations.
Ellen Burke Beckjord, assistant professor of Biobehavioral Medicine in Oncology Program with the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, who also contributed to the PwC report, agrees that organizations need to find more innovative ways of providing more services through social media.
“Organizations using social media now will probably be using it very differently in five years because the technology available will change and organizations will find new ways to create social media,” Beckjord said.
Nonetheless, Beckjord was optimistic about the possibilities of social media. She cited the National Cancer Institute’s Grid-Enabled Measures Database, (GEMD), as a social media tool that is allowing development of strategic value in a government organization.
GEMD acts as a wiki where users, including researchers and consumers, can build the Web site by adding and editing content, including medical information and data, and provide feedback. Users can also access statistics to help decide which directions to take in future research.
Indeed, healthcare organizations are moving in the direction of social media, said Chou, whose research interests include social media and health communication. “But government is so broad, it’s hard to move.”
Echoing that, Beckjord said that government agencies “need to imagine something new. That is the challenge,” she said, adding that this type of interactive tool, and others like it, could be used for many healthcare purposes. “We need to think outside the box.”