In 2004, Jeffrey Livingston observed his daughter using MySpace and was curious about her interactions. The Irving, Texas-based obstetrician-gynecologist asked his daughter to show him the functionality, “and then the lightbulb went off,” he explained. “I realized at that moment that I needed to speak to teenagers in the way they communicate.”
Livingston, who often speaks at the local high school about sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancy, immediately created his own MySpace page. He then set up a presence on Facebook and Twitter, mentioning these networks in his regular interactions with patients and nonpatients alike.
“My goal is to provide better healthcare,” Livingston explained. “Marketing was secondary--if it grows your practice, great, but if it engages your patients, then you end up providing better care.”
That’s savvy advice from a medical doctor. By and large, most physicians--and healthcare marketers--have avoided practicing social media, citing the inability to control information, the relative ease of giving free advice without compensation, and, of course, the possibility of violating disclosure laws. In fact, those are many of the same reasons why marketers in other highly regulated industries, such as financial services, have been cautious. But no matter the field, their concerns all boil down to one main question: How far can they go to promote their businesses and services, while still respecting regulation--and ethics?
The answer doesn’t come easy, and it’s one that continues to evolve as marketers test different best practices and strategies. This article takes a look at a few such efforts.
WellPoint, the largest provider of healthcare benefits in the U.S. and operator of 14 of 39 Blue Cross Blue Shield plans, waded into the social media waters a few years ago, but not without doing its proper due diligence. In 2008, the organization spent five months conducting research before extending its digital media and marketing efforts into social. “Our Health Connects Us,” the name of WellPoint’s brand positioning, “became a nice entry point for us to move into the social media space,” explained Kelly Colbert, marketing strategy director at WellPoint.
The idea was to develop a community in which people could learn more about themselves--and then share that information. For its Facebook page, WellPoint developed a tool, the Health Footprint Calculator, to measure not only an individual’s health and wellness, but also to measure one’s social network. “What the score tells you is how much of an impact your health habits have on your network,” said Colbert, who is also in charge of social media for the company.
The results: More than 50,000 have calculated their health footprints. Additionally, WellPoint has experienced a 75% completion rate, well more than the standard 45% completion rate for online tools.
WellPoint promotes the calculator not only just to members, but also to prospects. As for data, the company—which is well-aware of the need to respect privacy as well as to heed HIPAA laws--does not collect personally identifiable information, such as names and addresses. “ZIP codes and answers, that’s all we need,” Colbert said.
Each Sunday evening at 8 p.m. CST, Dana Lewis, interactive marketing specialist at Swedish Health Services, leads the Healthcare Communications and Social Media Twitterchat (#HCSM). Not for the light reader: A one-hour chat averages about 1,000 tweets, according to Lewis.
As for her own implementation of social media at Swedish, a nonprofit health system serving the greater Seattle area, “Patient safety is first, above and beyond HIPAA, and we do everything we can to educate our staff about policies,” Lewis explained. “Violation of patient privacy is not reliant on social media--sometimes people don’t understand what’s appropriate and what’s not.”
OB/GYN Livingston is also vigilant about maintaining patient privacy. To deal with sensitive information, he always directs his patients to his Web site, which has a secure messaging portal and electronic medical record (EMR) system. The patient portal counts 2,762 users and acts like an extension of the very social networks of which he is already a part.
“Social media has built stronger doctor-patient relationships and created more loyalty,” Livingston said.
Indeed, for healthcare marketers concerned about the release of sensitive information--or even the dispensing of free advice--starting patients or prospective patients on a social network and then migrating them to a secure portal can be a way to use information as a tool to encourage patients to consider additional treatments or learn of alternative medications.
To be sure, new business isn’t the only benefit: With the use of social networks and the secure portal, Livingston said his office now runs more efficiently, including a reduction by 10% of phone calls and staff administrative duties. His experience aligns with research conducted by Frost & Sullivan, in which 52% of survey respondents cited reduced operating costs as a perceived value of social networking, behind low-cost public relations and ahead of increased revenues per customer.
Those kinds of results are ones healthcare marketers can exploit when developing and executing their marketing plans, demonstrating how the effective use of communications channels are directly attributable to cost savings and organizational efficiencies.
Bethesda, Md.-based Healthcare Performance Management Institute (HPMI) also has studied extensively how both provider and patient use of communications/collaboration channels, especially those related to social media, is directly related to efficiency and better delivery of healthcare. Consumers and patients have been accessing health-related information online for at least 10 years; with added social features (sharing, commenting, direct messaging, etc.), individuals can get their questions answered, network with others who have similar conditions, spend less time at the doctor’s office, or engage in preventive treatment.
The Veterans Administration’s VistA healthcare system enables all of its doctors to communicate online in a private, secure manner to coordinate care for the plan’s 3 million members. Use of VistA, according to VA officials, has cut per patient healthcare costs by 30 percent because patients are more engaged, care is provided in a timely manner, and unnecessary tests and procedures are avoided.
“The bottom line is that when patient information is more transparent, it enhances the delivery of healthcare, reduces costs, and improves quality,” says Henry Cha, CEO of Healthcare Interactive and an HPMI board member. “The information also is valuable for measuring what forms of treatment work well and achieve the most successful outcomes.”
Efficiency and cost savings: These may seem like odd metrics for a profession that is traditionally rewarded by only showing gains in sales and interactions. But with the healthcare industry under fire from all sides, the savvy healthcare marketer can harness social media and Web 2.0 tools to demonstrate alternative organizational benefits.
“By freeing health data from silos and fostering sharing and collaboration across platforms and among patients and healthcare entities, it is easier to achieve the full promise of Health 2.0 initiatives: lower costs and better patient outcomes,” HPMI noted.