Social media use by healthcare providers: a matter of opinion

Candice O'Sullivan
November 15, 2012

When developing his taxonomy of professional service firms (PSFs), von Nordenflycht defined the ‘professional campus’ and in so doing, gave formal recognition to the hospital as a professional entity, with business imperatives not dissimilar to those of a classic PSF.

The primary source of resemblance of course, resides in the fact that, like the consulting firm, the hospital is a knowledge-intensive organisation. Just as the traditional PSF relies on its reputation to drive business, hospitals build their ‘name’ by defining and solving patients’ (clients’) problems through the direct application of expert knowledge by their knowledge workers.

It is no surprise then that the perceived skill level, knowledge, reputation and ethics of a doctor or hospital significantly influence an individual’s choice of healthcare provider. In this regard, word of mouth has always held firm sway. This has never been more true than today; a recent study showed that nearly 60% of all adults (in the US) turn to the Internet for information on their ailments and their physicians. The rise of social media, however, has given the search for health information new meaning. ­Twitter, online community forums, Facebook and the like have elevated the status of ‘the opinion’ – not opinion from the mouths of professionals but the opinions of virtual ‘friends’ (who ironically, may represent actual strangers). eWOM is the new word of mouth and as a result, professional reputation has never mattered more.

The astute hospital is using social media to help build, manage and protect its reputation. Those hospitals leading by example view social media platforms like Twitter as a key customer service touch point, which must be managed like any other marketing asset. A recent article describing the social media strategies of 20 US hospitals provides many examples of how a Twitter feed managed well can represent much more than a generic, broadcast corporate communications channel. Indeed, while technology has often been blamed for widening the patient-doctor gap, social media initiatives like providing real-time updates during disaster recovery efforts and live tweeting during surgical ‘firsts’, are helping healthcare providers to connect with patients in new and different ways. In the process, healthcare providers are evolving their service offering to better meet the unique needs and expectations of #epatients.

As a consequence, many healthcare providers now view the web as an important source of new referrals. While information found on social networks often leads to second opinions, savvy providers are realising that if you’re an expert in a particular field but you’re not ‘trending’, your opinion – no matter how expert – may not even be sought in the first place. It all comes back to Marketing 101: be where your customers are. Channels will always change. Customer reach, as a commercial imperative, will not.

But with all this information sharing occurring outside the traditional consultancy setting, where does the professional’s opinion now fit in a healthcare provider’s service model? How does the professional compete with the 21st century phenomenon of the patient as ‘self-made expert’, courtesy of the Internet? Dr. Robert Rowley, a primary care physician in the US recently wrote: “Patients, when they come to the doctor seeking health care, aren’t necessarily looking for ‘raw data’ – they have already looked it up online. Instead, they are looking for meaning.”  His point? Information is not knowledge. And that’s why professional opinion still matters in a world where clients, patients and customers have unfettered access to more information (and more friends) then they could ever need. Yes, information is power but only in its proper context, is it empowering.

By Candice O’Sullivan, Director and Head of Strategy at Wellmark. You can find Candice on Google+ at +Candice O’Sullivan.You can follow her tweets on brand strategy and related topics @candicepill.

Article originally posted on the Beaton Capital blog.

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