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How to convince leaders that social media is good for your hospital

November 1st, 2009

by Nancy Cawley Jean

If you work at a hospital, you know these institutions are pretty traditional when it comes to modes of communications. And now there's the brave new world of social media thrown into the mix. If you've already dipped your toes into the water, bravo!

If your organization is still on the fence, you'll likely meet up with a few nervous naysayers who, understandably, have concerns. Here are a few ways to alleviate their apprehension:

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We could be sued! Your legal and risk management folks very likely can tick off a lengthy list of potential liabilities that exist in the social media world. You'll hear words such as slander, libel and even a new term--"twible" (defamation made through a Twitter account) and their potential for lawsuits. Of course their concerns are valid, so how do you work through them?

At Lifespan, we worked with our legal and risk management department to discuss these potential threats and recognize they are out there. At the same time, the facts of social media must be discussed--the rapid increase in the use of this technology for communication is first and foremost and the numbers speak for themselves. More and more people--including your patients, staff, and competitors--are diving into the waters of social media and talking about you. If the chatter is good--fantastic. If it's bad, address it through these methods, and take larger steps if necessary.

There's always the chance of lawsuits--but this is true of any industry. But does the fear of malpractice lawsuits stop our physicians from practicing medicine? No. And having your legal department on board with this new vehicle of communication will help them be aware of the realities of social media.

The website LegalTechnology has a whole section dedicated to just this topic. There's also a great report out there by Russell Herder and Ethos Business Law that discusses all these issues. Should you be concerned? Yes. Should it stop you from building a brand loyalty and reaching out to people through the fastest-growing mode of communication? Definitely not.

What is someone violates our corporate standards? HR may be concerned about violations of corporate standards and your corporate compliance policy. Rightly so, but there are conversations happening in hallways, break rooms and elevators every day that you might never hear.

These same types of conversations are also taking place in the social media sphere, allowing you to monitor them and even be part of them. Get HR involved early on, help them understand that this is just another form of communication, and all the same rules apply, and then have a plan in place to communicate to staff.

Our firewalls won't allow it. If your organization is like ours, IT is a high priority and firewalls are in place--all for good reason. But that protection can create a nightmare when trying to access blocked sites like Facebook and YouTube when you begin to implement a social media presence. It's vital to get your IT folks on board beforehand so you'll have access to the sites you need.

This will invariably bring up another issue--now that you've entered the world of social media, do you have your staff come on board with you, or will social networking sites remain inaccessible from computers within the hospital? (Of course you can't forget about mobile devices that already provide access anyway!) A recent blog post by Paul Levy, CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, addresses this issue.

All of these issues are warranted, especially when we are in the business of providing healthcare and we are held to the strictest standards in protected health information. So what do you do? Build a plan that includes the development of policies and guidelines.

Develop a policy: Even if you've already become part of the social media world, it's not too late to develop policies that will serve as a guide for your employees. It's also good to let your fans and followers know what your public policy is.

If you don't know where to start, there are plenty of sample policies out there to help you mold your own. You can even find them with one simple search in Twitter, because the "tweeps" (those who follow others on Twitter) out there are always so helpful. (Another reason to enter social media--information at your fingertips!)

Here's the bottom line: People will be talking about you and your hospital in the world of social media. If you're not involved, you'll never know what's being said, and you certainly can't respond. So it's better to see the obstacles and work your way through them to be part of this new mode of communication. The rewards definitely outweigh the risks.

Nancy Cawley Jean blogs regularly about social media for Hospital Impact. She is a senior media relations officer for Lifespan, a five-hospital system in Rhode Island. A communications and media relations specialist, she manages the national media relations for research at Rhode Island Hospital and Hasbro Children's Hospital, in Providence, and oversees social media for Lifespan.

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