It’s an exciting time to be a healthcare communicator as social and mobile technologies and strategies are making their way into the industry. Patients are more and more in the driver’s seat at their doctor’s appointments, but as physicians have the ability to streamline their practice and diagnostic procedures they’re starting to meet them halfway. In addition, patients now have the power to impact the brand of a hospital or medical practice with the push of a button.  While the stakes are high for healthcare communicators, if they embrace social media in a pragmatic way, it can be an incredibly rewarding and worthwhile investment. However, if they choose to stick their head in the sand, the reputation of your hospital and practice are at stake.

Diagnosing illness through social media

When we start to feel sick, our first reaction isn’t necessarily to call the doctor’s office to make an appointment. More and more, people are turning to social networks and online resources such as WebMD to find an explanation for their symptoms.

When Internet-savvy patients come to a doctor’s office with specific problems, it’s likely that they’ll already have an idea of what their problem could be. Doctors can assume that many of their patients have already done some preliminary research online through sites such as Wikipedia to educate themselves before visiting the doctor. Armed with these new tools, patients no longer have to simply accept a doctor’s medical diagnosis; they will ask questions, potentially debate their diagnosis, and crowdsource for the best treatment options. And with popular resources and sites including PatientsLikeMe, CureTogether and Inspire getting strong traction, patients can only become more empowered. Mobile Health solutions are also giving patients (and physicians) anytime, anywhere access to information and real-time diagnosis.  One of the most compelling and promising apps to date is from Boston-based Ubiqi Health, who has developed an app for managing migraines.

So what does this all mean for health care communicators?  It means that consumers will be visiting corporate websites, relevant online resources and social media channels to find the health information they’re seeking. Health care communicators must understand that in order to maintain competitive advantage, they must encourage and educate those directly interacting with patients to embrace social media. Health care companies that show their willingness to meet current and potential patients where they are already seeking information – online and across social networks – in a helpful and fully transparent way will reap the benefits of higher customer loyalty and satisfaction.

Hospitals are involved in social media – even if they aren’t

Social networks are not just platforms to distribute or broadcast content– more importantly, they are platforms for sharing experiences and managing reputation. When patients visit hospitals, they share their experiences on Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and Yelp. This can come in the form of a location-based check-in, analysis of how well (or poorly) they’ve been treated, or rating of their overall experience. Patients will share information with their network about long (or short) waiting times, how friendly (or unfriendly) the staff was, and discuss whether or not the needs of their visit were met, no matter if the hospital has a social media plan or not.  Local hospitals that really get social and using it effectively are Tufts Medical Center and Children’s Hospital Boston.

It’s important to understand that even if a hospital isn’t actively participating in social media or doesn’t have a strategy in place, it isn’t absent from social media. Even if a hospital’s strategy is to simply monitor and respond to negative comments online, or to provide information and alerts about waiting room times, or to answer basic non-medical patient questions, it will help show patients that the hospital is there for them and can offer support.

The bottom line is that it is impossible to avoid social media and detrimental to a hospital to ignore customer feedback, so health care communications teams should proactively get involved in social media and build baseline strategies to help shape the image of their organization and build a positive online reputation – before their competitors beat them to it!

Editor’s Note: This post is the first of a month series on healthcare innovations. Dan Carter is Executive Vice President of Racepoint Group, a global public and social media relations agency with extensive expertise in healthcare, technology and life sciences. Dan is also co-founder of Health Care 3.0, an online community focused on discussing the intersection of healthcare on the social Web. You can contact Dan at or on Twitter @danrpg.