Hospital Leaders on Social Media: Risk and Potential

By Valerie Lauer
Sunday, January 1, 2017

With the right strategy, health system CEOs can leverage online outlets to improve the reach of their hospitals’ voice and engage a population hungry for information and perspective.

Today, more consumers than ever look online for information about health care. According to the Pew Research Center Internet Project, 80 percent of internet users search for health information online. Pew survey data showed that searching for healthcare information was the third most popular online activity among respondents, and that 36 percent of those users sought information specifically about medical facilities.

Consumers searching for healthcare information represent a vast swath of the population, and hospitals have an opportunity to engage them via blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media outlets. However, even among hospitals that make robust use of social media, it is less common for their leaders to be a public, regularly engaged presence in these efforts.

That C-level disengagement can be perilous.

“Patients and caregivers on those platforms have voices,” says Brian Loew, Founder and CEO of Inspire, a website that hosts health-specific communities with 900,000 registered patient and caregiver members. “They are talking about and reporting about really important things. If leadership at hospitals were to ignore that, they would be ignoring very important feedback.”

Entering the Fray

In hospital marketing departments across the country, trained professionals put great thought into online strategy. Ideally, each post and reply is crafted to meet brand standards, respond to concerns and tie in to a big-picture marketing plan that moves the health system forward.

When hospital leaders engage online, they can enhance the organization’s connection with online users who value authenticity.

Stephen Klasko, MD, MBA, CEO and President of Thomas Jefferson University and Jefferson Health in Philadelphia, recognized the potential of social media early on. He has had an online presence for 10 years and posts regularly on a hospital blog, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The video of his 2014 TED talk, “What Healthcare Will Look Like in 2020,” has been viewed more than 120,000 times. He has found his online endeavors productive and enjoyable.

“For me, it became a way of pushing the envelope in health care,” Dr. Klasko says. “We are leaders in trying to promote transparency. It’s been a really fantastic way of having people believe, correctly, that I’m very interested in interacting with them and hearing their thoughts.

In addition, a vigorous online presence is indispensable for connecting with a certain age demographic, he says.

“There aren’t a whole lot of ways to engage with millennials other than that,” Dr. Klasko says. “Millennials are the ones reshaping health care.”

Over the years, Dr. Klasko and those of like mind have learned that being successful online requires a specific set of tools and strategies. Those include:

  • Allocating appropriate time and resources. While Dr. Klasko does have a direct hand in his online presence, he also has the support of a team of professionals, including social media and public affairs specialists. Few CEOs have the time and acumen to develop and execute a social media campaign alone.
  • Being consistent. Deciding to write a blog or have a Twitter feed is only the first step toward a successful online outlet. To make an impact, content needs to appear regularly and in perpetuity. Otherwise, the CEO brand risks looking inconsistent.
  • Developing a clear voice. Hospital CEOs and other leaders hold unique, highly visible positions in health systems. The tone of their online presence needs to match the goals of the health system. They should project knowledge, trustworthiness and compassion, and avoid controversial topics such as politics.
  • Using the platform to interact. Social media is not a one-way street. Successful online outlets are interactive. Giving readers opportunities to comment and responding to those comments is essential. Again, working with a team can facilitate this.

“Patients today expect and really wish to be part of the conversation and not just receive information in a one-sided manner,” Loew says. “Maybe that’s one of the things that’s come out of social media. We all feel like we deserve to have a conversation. Some hospital administrators would view that as a burden, but I hope the enlightened ones would say this is an opportunity.”

A Word about Authenticity

Authenticity was a key element in the digital strategy of Paul Levy, former CEO and President of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, who embraced social media before many of his fellow CEOs. During his time as the head of the medical center, Levy had a blog called Running a Hospital. When he left, he renamed the blog Not Running a Hospital and continued to provide insight into the healthcare industry until March 2016, when the blog shut down.

In an interview with Becker’s Hospital Review, Levy admonished CEOs to embrace their individuality, saying, “If their social media interactions are not in their own voice, they might as well not get engaged.”

To Levy, that meant publishing content he wrote without having it looked over or approved. That carries risks — digital content is easily captured and shared — and it’s not the only approach that can work, says Brian Loew, Founder and CEO of Inspire, a website that hosts health-specific communities. According to Loew, utilizing resources to review or even ghostwrite posts is acceptable if the material maintains the CEO’s tone and does not come across as canned.

“Is it OK if it’s a ghostwriter? Yes, as long as the ghostwriter is not a robot and knows the speaker well enough to actually reflect what that person might say,” he says.