Social media gaining foothold in medical world

But progress is not quick, at least locally, officials say.

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The doctor will tweet you now.

The role of social media in health care is rising faster than a thermometer in a fever ward, according to a recent study by the University of Missouri.

Researcher Hyojung Park found nonprofit organizations and community groups appear to be more active in posting health information and interacting with the public on Twitter than other types of health-related organizations, such as educational institutions, health-related businesses and government agencies.

The use of social media, including Facebook, continues to increase as an effective way of passing important information to the public.

Linda Wondra at the the Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial Veterans Affairs Medical Center is trying it all on for size, using the medical center's website, Twitter and Facebook to reach out to younger men and women, she said.

For a long time the national VA blocked all social media sites from employees, said Wondra, spokeswoman for the Walla Walla medical center. "Then the VA decided that with the younger veterans coming back from the war, they are communicating differently, using different social media."

Using those methods to reach that demographic makes sense, even to the VA, she said. "We were all told to get on the bandwagon and get our social media going."

These days, in addition to listing events in the newspaper and over radio, Wondra updates Facebook and feeds Twitter. Working with medical staff, she puts out information about classes, health topics and events, trying to make it as relevant as possible for her local audience, she said.

Which is small so far, Wondra conceded. While urban VA centers get large numbers of followers, the local VA Facebook page hovers at 160 fans."But I'm starting to see people are seeing stuff because they are calling or emailing me about what I posted."

Twitter may be more appealing to nonprofit organizations because it creates a barrier-free environment that allows the sharing of information through real-time exchanges without a lot of effort, Park pointed out. Groups without hefty marketing budgets can benefit from using inexpensive and rapidly-growing social media.

In her study, Park explored how health-related organizations use Twitter to promote health literacy and raise awareness of their brands and manage their images, 140 characters at a time.

All that takes time and staffing, said Kathleen Obenland, public relations director for Providence St. Mary Medical Center. "Right now we are working on Internet sites and improving that. We haven't had time to do other social media."

More than setting things up, the page or feed has to be relevant, she said. "It can't just be recycled press releases. If you can provide that, it is a wonderful thing. But other than that, what value does it bring to the patient?"

Value may be circuitous and indirect, research shows. The University of Missouri study found that social media users want organizations to be actively involved in the same and to communicate and engage with the users directly, Park said. "Nonprofit health groups do a great job of this, which helps them communicate their health messages and, ultimately, to increase health literacy in the community."

And as much as 30 percent of health "tweets" get republished in some from, resulting in an even larger audience, she found.

The Yakima Valley Farm Worker's Clinic, the umbrella organization over Family Medical and Dental Center in Walla Walla, is exploring the best way to use social media tools. "It needs to be well organized and easy for people to follow," said Melanie Felice, communications specialist.

Her hope is that things are in place by the end of the year, Felice said. And Facebook will most likely be the platform of choice -- "I think everyone has access to Facebook, I do think that's where we're going. I can see where our patients use a smartphone over personal computers."

Having a page would help Family Medical and Dental have a bigger presence in the Walla Walla community, she added. Although Walla Walla General Hospital is new to the social media game, marketing and communication director Kristi Spurgeon Johnson is learning as fast as she can.

The hospital has Facebook and Twitter accounts established but is only using one at this time, she said. "We're putting more focus on Facebook because I think it is an easier place to build that interactive site we're looking for."

She and others are researching what information is important to fans, so the Facebook page can be used as a tool, Spurgeon Johnson said. "We're working on a standard of how much to post, goals for posting, a balance between this kind of information and that kind of information."

It can't be overstated how important it is to build a quality "wall" for that posting, she said.

"That leads to a sense of community and making General Hospital more accessible," she said. "Not this big, scary place as hospitals often seem."

It does take thought, effort and planning, the director acknowledged. "You really have to integrate it into everything you're doing."

New though it is, using social media is just the latest version of part of any hospital's mission, Spurgeon Johnson feels. "One struggle is to get to where the people are. We used to do health fairs or screenings, and hundreds of people would come. Now six people come. People are on Facebook. So we need to be there."

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

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