4 Healthcare Organizations Tell Us How They’re Using Social Media: An HCE Original Report

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(by Pete Fernbaugh)

Facebook. Instagram. Snapchat. Tumblr. Twitter. Vine.

The list of social-media outlets goes on and on.

How is your hospital or healthcare organization harnessing social media to connect with your patients and your community?

We asked four healthcare organizations this question recently. Here’s what they had to say.

Ginger Pelz, Communications Manager, DaVita Kidney Care, Denver, Colo.

DaVita Kidney Care is a kidney-care provider with more than 2,000 outpatient dialysis centers across the U.S. and the world. Dialysis is an ongoing treatment for individuals with kidney failure and is a major lifestyle adjustment for many patients.

For this reason, DaVita’s social-media content is focused on sharing inspiring patient stories and providing resources designed to improve quality of life, such as kidney-friendly recipes, kidney disease education, and answering frequently asked questions, Ginger Pelz, communications manager, said in an email.

“The biggest tip I could share for using social media in healthcare is to constantly test and improve the content you are sharing and to make sure you are giving your community what they are looking for,” she said. “For DaVita Kidney Care, we can’t constantly push marketing messages out because our community won’t respond to repeatedly shared CTAs.”

The social-media team instead has to ask: What can we do that mixes what we want from our community and what our community wants from us?

“When you can strike a balance there, your communities–across a variety of platforms–will grow and thrive,” Pelz said.

DaVita will frequently hold Google+ Hangout sessions on a variety of topics, with a recent one being Kidney Diet Tips.

“We had more than 1,000 kidney diet-related questions submitted before the Hangout. While we could address some of the frequently asked questions live on the Hangout, the remaining questions are now being posted to DaVita’s social-media community, myDaVita.com,” Pelz said.

Each Wednesday, five of these questions are answered on myDaVita.com by DaVita renal dietitians from across the U.S., she continued. “This not only raises awareness and engagement on myDaVita.com, but helps us provide service excellence for our patients.”


Linda Ho and Ashley Dinielli, Marketing Team, UCLA Health System, Los Angeles, Calif.

In May 2013, Linda Ho and Ashley Dinielli, members of the marketing team at UCLA Health System in Los Angeles, were looking for a project that would take their social-media efforts to the next level.

They were informed that the neurosurgery department’s Deep Brain Stimulation Program (DBS) was about to conduct its 500th procedure. The patient was a young musician who had tremors in one of his arms. This severely inhibited his ability to play the guitar, so the plan was to insert a pacemaker in his brain that would regulate the tremors. Having just completed a website highlighting the DBS program, Ho said the next step was to capture the public’s interest.

In addition, she and Dinielli had been looking for an opportunity to live-tweet a procedure for a while, and after arranging the event with legal affairs, compliance, and risk management, they determined this was their chance.

“It was an amazing opportunity,” Dinielli said, who, armed with nothing more than an iPad, engaged their Twitter followers from within the operating room. “Not only was it an interesting procedure and an interesting case, but you don’t ever really get to see a person playing a guitar while they’re being operated on. It was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime type event.”

Thanks to coverage from CNN Health and interest from UCLA’s social-media followers, the live-tweet went viral. Dinielli also made use of the six-second video site Vine to upload several videos chronicling the surgery’s progress.

“I think actually seeing video was new to a lot of folks,” she said.

One of the benefits of using social media in this way, Ho said, is it gives those who might have to undergo a similar procedure a chance to “really show what’s going on. Being in the room is very educational. It really helps to alleviate the anxiety people have before undergoing a procedure.”

For that reason, Ho and Dinielli advise organizations to consider who their audiences are and how they can build their social media by engaging those audiences.

“Most of the teenage population don’t use Facebook, but more of the generation that is making decisions for parents or themselves is on Facebook,” Dinielli said. “I think it’s being adaptable or changeable or flexible to understanding those changes and trying to manipulate your social-media program to fit where it’s going to draw interest and capture those eyes.”

“We want to be where our audience is,” Ho added.


Rhonda Mann, Chief Marketing Officer, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston, Mass.

Rhonda Mann, chief marketing officer at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) in Boston, Mass., and the BIDMC team handled media and community relations during the Boston Marathon bombings on April 15, 2013. Social media ended up playing an important role in their efforts, she said.

“It was an incredible learning experience. And as much as you think you’re prepared for anything, we realized how many things we had never thought of.”

Mann outlined three primary lessons she and her team learned about social media during this time:

First, even though social media is always refreshing itself and moving forward, rarely looking back, healthcare social media has to do both: move forward and look back.

Beth Israel Deaconess was the hub of media attention in the aftermath of the bombings, not only because 24 of the victims were being treated there, but also because two of the suspects were transported to BIDMC, with the first suspect dying before being admitted. Mann said so much was going on, she and her team understandably lost track of the specifics of each social-media post on their Facebook page.

A week after the bombings, she went back and was scrolling through these posts and realized that a particular post was from the family of one of the three people who had been killed in the tragedy. They had posted to BIDMC’s page asking if their daughter had been seen at the hospital.

At the time, her team’s response was to refer the family to the local authorities.

“But then, when I looked back,” Mann said, “I was like, ‘Oh my god! This girl died. We didn’t think to go back sooner and really look at these posts. They probably left this message on every Facebook page around the city, but it was a good reminder to remember to not just move forward but to keep going back and looking at what had come in. Although social media is very current, we are a hospital and a caregiver and we want to provide the right level of support for people at every stage.”

Second, every social-media policy has an exception.

Mann said BIDMC’s social-media policy is to never take anything down that a person posts on its Facebook page, unless it is disparaging and offensive.

“We do not take down any kind of post that is negative. We deal with the posts. We respond to the posts. And that’s a policy that we’ve had in place from Day One, because if you’re not truly going to allow people to speak their minds, then why do social media to begin with? It’s just not honest. And people will feel that.”

However, a day after receiving Suspect #2, the BIDMC Facebook page was flooded with hundreds of politically charged posts expressing support for the suspect. Mann readily admits there wasn’t a clear reason to take down the posts, except for the fact that it was overwhelming the entire site to the point that she and her team couldn’t tell if these posts were coming from spammers or actual people.

Confronted with the ethical dilemma of doing what was best for the page or strictly adhering to the policy, the marketing team went to legal affairs, which pointed out that the Facebook page was explicitly designed for issues surrounding the typical care at Beth Israel Deaconess. The posts supporting Suspect #2 were instead designed to be a political statement and were preventing the hospital from effectively reaching out to the public about medical matters.

She and her team took the posts down.

“It was a difficult decision because we really stand by our policy,” Mann said. “But in the end, when we really looked at why we have a Facebook page, I think it was the right thing to do.”

Third, when you have an event of this magnitude, you need to make sure your employees understand what they can and cannot say on social media.

Fortunately, Mann said, this ended up being precautionary, since the employees never stepped out of bounds. However, in an emotionally charged situation such as the marathon bombings, the reality of 9,000 employees possibly saying something to the media or revealing a bit of information on social media that violated privacy was strong.

The team’s solution was simple. On BIDMC’s internal website, only accessible to employees, they issued a red-line reminder at the top of the screen, informing employees to not Tweet or Facebook information that was private. They also asked them to refer all media inquiries to the media office.

Mann said this had the desired impact, and no major employee-related social-media issues presented themselves. Over a year later, BIDMC has stepped up its efforts to educate employees on the proper ways to use social media, which is one reason she urges other organizations to seriously consider the implications and pitfalls of social media before diving into it.

“I think you really need to be thoughtful about it before you jump. A lot can be said for just jumping in, but social media is 24/7 minimally. If you’re a healthcare organization, you have got to have a way to monitor your posts 24/7 because you just don’t know what’s going to be posted at five in the morning that may need to be dealt with and we’ve certainly had posts like that. You have an obligation to make sure that whatever comes out on those pages is something that is going to be helpful to people and represents your brand well.”


Gina Czark, Director of Social Media, NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, New York City, N.Y.

When Hurricane Sandy struck in October 2012, NewYork-Presbyterian’s social-media efforts were barely three months old. Because the social-media team was still trying to find their rhythm and flow, Czark said Sandy taught them valuable lessons about 21st-century communications, including the fact that social media doesn’t replace traditional media. It enhances it.

“We’re able to be our own news site. You no longer have to rely on the media to come to a press conference or press-release pickup to get your message out.”

Pivotal to the success of any social-media program is the involvement of the executive leadership, Czark said.

Dr. Robert E. Kelly, president of the hospital, used Twitter to communicate to employees and the public during the aftermath of Sandy, working closely with the social-media team to make sure pertinent information was related, such as whether the hospital was open or closed (It never closed.) and where blood drives were being held. He also used social media to thank the staff for their extraordinary efforts.

Czark said Sandy also showed the hospital the power of visuals. The care team was working 24/7, sleeping at the hospital, and going above and beyond their normally expected duties. The social-media team began posting photos of the NICU nurses, the patient-transport team, and the food and nutrition workers, so the community could see the people who were waiting to help them and the dedication on display.

The NewYork-Presbyterian Facebook community is now 81,000-plus strong. Czark said many people visit the page and post on their own, independent of any prompting from her team, to relate their positive experiences with the hospital. Sometimes, these patients are recalling care that was delivered 10 or even 20 years ago.

In so doing, patients voluntarily become NewYork-Presbyterian’s brand ambassadors.

“I think social media gives us the opportunity to have that real-time engagement to get the pulse of what’s happening within our patient community,” Czark said.

Social media also creates a dialogue among patients. This past February, for example, during Congenital Heart Defect Awareness Week, the social-media team featured patient stories of babies who had received open-heart surgery at NewYork-Presbyterian and were now living happy, fulfilled lives.

The feedback from parents whose newborns were going through similar experiences was overwhelming, with many saying the stories gave them hope and encouragement.

Czark said the hospital’s employees have also found a voice on social media. Because she and her community manager are limited in their ability to cover all of NewYork -Presbyterian’s six campuses, let alone the individual departments of each campus, she established the All-Stars Program. About 30 employees on the ground take pictures of events and provide information on the various activities across the campuses.

“A lot of the best content that we find at the hospital is from our employees,” she said. “We’re a team of two so we needed to really rely on our employees at our six different campuses and throughout our different departments to be our eyes and ears on the ground.”

Czark advises organizations to incorporate social media for the right reasons. This begins by figuring out why you want to get involved on social media, what you have to say, how you will manage your presence, how often you will post, and how you will respond to positive and negative comments, because you will get both, she said.

“I think a lot of organizations feel they have to be on social media now because everybody else is doing it. But it’s not about pushing out a one-way message. It’s about being authentic and creating a community where you’re engaging, you’re having conversations, and you’re building those brand ambassadors.

“You need to create a social structure that breaks down silos and is representative of your organization, because what you’re doing with social media is essentially establishing a voice and identity for your organization within an online space.”

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