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reprinted with permission of the publisher from the November 5, 2012 issue

Healthcare providers must not ignore the growing pro- liferation of social media tools, lest they overlook a huge portion of the population.

That was the message conveyed by David Harlow during a session on healthcare social media at the Medical Group Management Association 2012 An- nual Conference Oct. 21-24 in San Antonio, TX.

Harlow, of the Newton, MA-based Harlow Group


( encourages hospitals and physicians to embrace social media tools to engage their patients.






“It is important to reach out to where constituencies are, whether from a marketing and public relations perspective or from a care management perspective,” explains Harlow. “The way to meet people today is through social media because many of the traditional channels we have used in the past are not reaching the people who need to be reached.”

Harlow stresses that the value of social media goes beyond marketing and PR. “There is a whole layer of patient engagement and patient-centeredness that is under the Affordable Care Act,” says Harlow. “It is important for providers to be with people where they are and social media is a way to do it.”

Harlow notes that the inclusion of patient engagement language in the Affordable Care Act is “revolution- ary” because it marks the first time such terms have been part of a federal statute.

“One of the criteria by which you are judged to qualify as a Medicare accountable care organization is pa- tient-centeredness, which includes patient engage- ment,” says Harlow.

While patient portals within EHRs address certain patient engagement requirements, many existing por- tals are not user-friendly.

“If you are asking someone to log in to yet another site with yet another login and password, the likeli- hood of that happening is low,” says Harlow. “It is important to offer the option for people to connect with their healthcare providers on systems they are already using, such as Twitter, texting, and Facebook.”

Harlow warns organizations to observe patient pri- vacy regulations when engaging in social media.

“It is important to remember all of the HIPAA rules, which include a patient’s right to reveal information about them self online, but does not allow others to reveal the patient’s information without advanced writ- ten permission,” he says “Sometimes that means it is difficult to respond directly to a patient’s post because it might be inviting a HIPAA violation.”

Providers should consider adding social media lan- guage to their HIPAA release documentation so that patients understand policies and can consent in ad- vance to the way information will be used. Organiza- tions should also develop written social media poli- cies that address both inward-facing considerations

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for staff and outward policies for online behavior stan- dards.

“These policies should not be written up by one or two people behind closed doors, but developed with a cross-section of folks within an institution,” recom- mends Harlow. “Organizations should include people familiar with using social media tools, even if it’s not part of their job descriptions. Institutions should tap into these individuals’ understanding of how different social media tools work in order to improve the organization’s approach.”

Harlow recommends consulting the Mayo Clinic Cen- ter for Social Media for sample policy guidelines.

“I would caution folks not to just copy the Mayo Clinic’s policies because these people have been do- ing this for a long time and have a certain level of com- fort and ease with the tools and use them in particular ways,” says Harlow. “It’s important to develop social media policies at the local level based on your local stake holders and their level of comfort with the tools, and, based on what you are trying to accomplish.”

Currently only about one in five U.S. hospitals has a social media presence, with Facebook and Youtube the most common platforms.

“For the hospital and physician public there is still a tremendous marketing opportunity in many markets to use these tools to reach out and connect with pa- tients, referral sources, and other providers in the com- munity,” says Harlow.

Harlow notes that an increasing number of physicians are using Twitter for professional communications among peers.

“Twitter has become an important platform that serves as a virtual water cooler for physicians to share clini- cal knowledge,” he says. “Unlike Sermo and other closed physician communities, participation for the most part is not anonymous. If people know who you are, they perhaps trust your opinion better and may establish an initial connection they might not have oth- erwise.”

Harlow believes the use of social media tools in healthcare has significant potential for improving pa- tient care.

“It is important to use the tools we have and custom- ize the way we communicate with patients,” he says. “If we don’t, we are going to miss the boat in terms of patient compliance, leading to an increase in readmis- sions and a whole host of other problems. We have the tools at our disposal to improve wellness and it would be a shame not to use them.”