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Do hospitals need to enter the world of social media?

October 5th, 2009

by Nancy Cawley Jean

Do hospitals need to enter the world of social media? That's the exact question we asked ourselves last year at Lifespan, a large, Rhode Island-based health system comprised of a parent and five affiliated hospitals. We started to realize that communication as we know it has changed dramatically in the last five years alone, giving consumers more of a voice than ever before.

No longer are disgruntled customers (or patients) left with the sole option of writing a letter to the editor of their local newspaper to get their voices heard. Now they can blog about it, tell their friends through Facebook, or even share their experience with the entire world through Twitter. Unlike the past, consumers now expect to be heard.

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These changes require businesses to stop avoiding social media and start paying attention. Hospitals are no exception. Like it or not, people will use these new forms of social media to talk about your hospital and staff. True, you could simply choose to ignore those conversations, but any savvy business professional knows that word-of-mouth marketing is hard to beat.

Consider: If the conversations surrounding your brand in the social media world are negative, it's vital to be aware of those conversations so that you can engage in a dialogue to try to change the negative perception. Likewise, if someone says something positive about you, wouldn't you want to engage them in a conversation and thank them?

These are some of the reasons why Lifespan made the decision to enter the world of social media. Our goal: Engage in personal conversation to build loyalty and be aware of what is being said about us, and have this serve as an extension of the strategic marketing plan. More often than not, the comments posted about our hospitals are positive.

Shortly after establishing our Twitter accounts, we started using Twitter's terrific "search" function to look for any mentions of our hospitals. If someone tweeted that they were "visiting mom at Rhode Island Hospital," for example, we'd tweet them directly and wish them all the best--in a very personal tone. And keep in mind--these "conversations" can be read by thousands of Twitter users. (They don't call it "social" media for nothin'.)

The responses we receive to these direct tweets are amazing. First, the person is surprised that the hospital is actually on Twitter. Second, they express sincere appreciation that we took time to message them back in a personal way.

One of our hospitals, Newport Hospital, had an ongoing Twitter conversation with a man whose mother had been in the ICU and finally released. He couldn't thank us enough--not only for the care she received, but also for the concern we expressed on a personal level through these tweets.

Addressing negative issues can also be accomplished through this new medium. One woman tweeted that she was late for her appointment because she couldn't find her way around our very large, urban Rhode Island Hospital campus. I responded that indeed, it can be confusing, apologized for the inconvenience and sent her a link to a campus map on the web, saying she could contact me anytime. Her appreciation was clear in her responses.

Once you get the hang of Twitter, you might want to check out some of the cool Twitter applications out there, such as TweetDeck or HootSuite, which make searching much easier and allow you to manage multiple Twitter accounts and monitor for brand mentions and replies.

Our Facebook fan pages, especially Hasbro Children's Hospital's, have also been very well-received. It's a great forum to where "fans" can share their own stories with us. This, of course, always provides us with a potential patient testimonial that can be used to support future marketing efforts, but that's not why we have the fan pages. The point is to reach out on a personal level to connect with people near and far and build loyalty and trust.

Are there risks? Of course there are. But isn't there more of a risk in not being a part of the conversation going on around you?

Nancy Cawley Jean is a communications and media relations professional with more than 20 years of experience in the healthcare field. In her current role, she splits her time between social media for Lifespan and its affiliate hospitals and national media relations for research at Lifespan's largest hospital, Rhode Island Hospital and its pediatric division, Hasbro Children's Hospital. Prior to this role, she spent eight years as a senior media relations officer for Rhode Island/Hasbro Children's, managing proactive media relations and crisis communications for the state's largest hospital.

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