The risks and benefits of social media and healthcare

Recently I was interviewed by Gienna Shaw of HealthLeaders Media about the groundbreaking surgery we helped Sherman Hospital simulcast on Twitter and Facebook. We’re positng the comlete article here.

Healthcare and Social Media: The Benefits Win Out

Pooh-Poohing is Easy, Adapting to Social Media is Hard


Gienna Shaw, for HealthLeaders Media, June 3, 2009

OK, so there’s been a lot of buzz—and a lot of articles—about hospitals that are using the micro-blogging site Twitter to describe surgeries in real time. There’s also been a lot of debate over whether or not this is a good idea.

In a recent guest post on our MarketShare blog, Patrick Buckley reported about the negative reactions to tweeting surgeries in an online poll (“Milwaukee Not All A-Twitter Over Hospitals’ Use Of Social Media.”) The responses, overwhelmingly negative, annoyed me. “They should be focusing on the patient who’s ‘under the knife,'” one respondent wrote. “Distractions can cause problems. No one wants to hear ‘oops’ during surgery.”

To borrow a line from the Saturday night live skit, “Really? With Seth and Amy:” Really?

Do people really think that surgeons would really put down their scalpels and skip over to the computer to post their 140-character updates? Do people really think that any healthcare organization would put Twitter before patient safety? Really?

Meanwhile, it doesn’t matter that these readers were woefully uninformed (I blame the publication in part for that because the poll simply asked whether tweeted surgeries are a good idea without explaining how they work). The fact is that healthcare marketers can’t just jump onto the Twitter bandwagon without having a solid communications plan and marketing strategy in place and also explaining clearly what they’re doing.

They must balance the benefits of the effort—increased exposure, possible media coverage, an opportunity to educate patients who might be facing the same type of surgery—with the negatives—people who don’t really understand social media throwing stones because they think it’s clever to pooh-pooh anything new.

For a look into one tweeting hospital’s experience, I interviewed Marc Battaglia, associate creative director at Demi & Cooper Advertising in Elgin, IL. The agency worked with Chicago’s Sherman Health, a multi-hospital system, to tweet a laproscopic hysterectomy. Battaglia understands the risks and benefits of trying something new, but does a good job articulating why the benefits outweigh the negatives. Excerpts from our Q&A session follow:

Gienna Shaw: What was the thought process that led to Sherman Hospital tweeting the surgery?

Marc Battaglia: Twitter is an amazing platform if you look at it as we do. We see Twitter as a multi-device real-time messaging system. That means when you send out a message on Twitter it can be delivered in real-time to a user’s gadget of choice, whether that be their desktop computer at work, their laptop in a coffee shop or their BlackBerry or other wireless device. Sharing information from an OR is not a new idea. Twitter is a perfect medium for distributing information from an OR because it allows time for messages to be worded correctly.

We were looking for new ways to help Sherman connect with their community, to provide information, and help people become more familiar with the hospital. We found that Tweeting the surgery was an excellent way to help potential surgical candidates become more comfortable with Sherman.

The surgery that was performed at Sherman Hospital was a laproscopic hysterectomy, which, as you can imagine, is a complicated procedure. The procedure was even more unique in that it was done with the da Vinci Surgical Robot, a truly incredible piece of technology. Some of the benefits of this type of procedure are the incredibly small incisions, less blood loss, and a speedier recovery time. The surgery was led by Raja Chatterji, MD, and Humberto Lamoutte, MD, both OB/GYNs and surgeons on the medical staff at Sherman Hospital, both highly trained on the da Vinci Surgical Robot.

GS: What were the benefits of doing the surgery? What were the risks?

MB: The first surgery to be Tweeted was done by Henry Ford Hospital in Michigan. Having them come before us helped Sherman understand what was involved. We were the second hospital to do this, the first in Illinois and the first ever to simulcast on Twitter and Facebook. Since then there have been several other hospitals that have Tweeted surgeries and all have been great successes.

Our main concern was getting approval from the patient. Luckily we were able to find several patients who were excited about participating. The doctors narrowed it down to one patient based on logistics, surgical complexity, and timing. Since the doctors felt comfortable that the patient would be an appropriate choice for this surgery, the second concern for us was centered around technology. We brought in our own equipment, which included two MacBook Pros, two iPhones, a HD video camera, mini-DV camera, and a digital SLR camera. In addition to tweeting details on the progress of the operation and answering questions from our community and around the world, we were able to take near-realtime photos and upload high-def video to YouTube within about three minutes.

The response to the surgery was overwhelmingly positive. We had people watching from all over the world and then coverage followed from every major media outlet in Chicago, as well as newspapers, magazines, and trade journals from across the country.

As with anything new, there are risks involved, and the Internet has made it easier than ever for comments to be shared. Some people were confused about the surgery and were concerned that the doctors were putting down their scalpels to Tweet. Others thought it may be a violation of privacy for the patient, not realizing that, of course, we had permission. The patient’s family was very excited and watched the surgery on a BlackBerry from the waiting room, which they felt was a huge comfort. Part of our job is to also help with reputation management and education.

GS: If you could tell hospital leaders one thing about using social media (especially if they are hesitant or skeptical about it), what would it be?

MB: Social media isn’t going to go away, and ignoring it isn’t really a viable option. The best way to manage your reputation online is to participate. Ignoring it is a short-lived strategy. Hospitals and healthcare facilities need to become involved and present helpful, safe, and accurate information.

One Comment

  1. Angie
    June 29, 2009

    The online poll should have explained the process involved with the tweeted surgery before they let people vote on whether it was/is a good idea. Because they didn’t do this, their results are a bit skewed. If people had understood the procedure and what was involved, they might have seen the benefits instead of the negatives and voted differently.