Hospitals need an engaged social media presence on Facebook and Twitter

How important is it for hospitals to engage in social media platforms, such as Facebook or Twitter?

It’s essential.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the controversy concerning infant Joseph Maraachli. Without getting too involved in the politics or ethics of the case, this was the highly publicized story where a Canadian hospital came under fire over the care of a dying infant.

This particular institution didn’t have a pronounced social media presence, and was not effective at engaging the social media firestorm that the case precipitated.  As reported by the Globe and Mail,

London Health Sciences Centre decided … to launch a public information campaign about a dying infant in its care, Joseph Maraachli, after the case went viral. Videos have sprung up online that supporters say contradict the doctors’ diagnosis that the baby is in a vegetative state. Petitions and campaigns have started in a bid to save Joseph’s life. A website,, is asking for donations to help the family, and a similarly named Facebook page had swelled to nearly 13,300 members by Tuesday afternoon.

According to the hospital’s communication director, “there was a lot of misinformation that was beginning to circulate in a variety of media, including the social media concepts.”

You think?

That’s why it’s important that medical institutions respond quickly and decisively to potential falsehoods spread on Facebook and Twitter. What used to take days to germinate, now spreads in a matter of hours.

But it takes more than a mere Facebook site or Twitter account to effectively engage. American Medical News notes that many hospital Facebook pages are inert, rendering them less effective:

[Marketing group] Verasoni chose 120 hospitals at random and found all had, at some point, a Facebook page. Of those, fewer than 40% posted content to the site on a daily basis, 25% posted twice a week and 25% posted once a month. Of the rest, three posted less than once a month and six had a presence but no activity … 83% of hospitals don’t solicit feedback from people who follow their Facebook feeds. And 97% don’t use Facebook’s discussion board.

Maintaining a hospital social media presence is a full time job, and cannot be supported by framing it as an additional task for a marketing department. In order for a hospital to be effective at Facebook or Twitter, someone needs to be there at all times to respond.

If London Health Sciences Centre had an effective, engaged social media presence, perhaps they would have more nimbly mitigated the media firestorm that burned them.

 is an internal medicine physician and on the Board of Contributors at USA Today.  He is founder and editor of, also on FacebookTwitterGoogle+, and LinkedIn.

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  • Elaine Schattner, MD

    With due respect, I don’t agree. I don’t think physicians or hospitals have any responsibility whatsoever to participate in social media. Doctors have to communicate with their patients, which is fine (and perhaps better) if it’s done in a private setting. As for hospitals, a lot of their social media is simply PR.

  • Bill Lindsay

    Good post, Kevin. You highlight a few of the mistakes health institutions can make when it comes to social media, namely: (1) Not being there at all. The conversation happens whether the hospital is part of it or not; isn’t it better to be in the position to participate – to quell the sparks before the conflagration? (2) Setting up a social media presence, e.g., Facebook page, but then not attending to it (neglect begets regret). And (3) assuming that “doing social media” doesn’t cost anything. Doing it effectively takes both time and resources. As we’ve seen in this and other cautionary tales, not doing it – or doing it poorly – can be very costly in terms of reputation, if not dollars. A new white paper touching on many of these issues:

  • Erica Holt

    These are really good points from a crisis management perspective. If your organization is not monitoring conversations and establishing a presence prior to a communications crisis, you are in trouble when one hits. But you point to a study that shows that many hospital Facebook pages are “inert, rendering them less effective.” I wonder if that’s really the problem — that hospitals aren’t continuously “engaging” people? I wonder if in this case it’s a lack of good crisis management planning (that incorporates social media) and ensuring staff across functions are versed in social media to move quickly during crises posting messages and monitoring and responding. Basically, be very prepared, but don’t waste valuable resources over-engaging people on Facebook just because a crisis could hit any time. Just a thought :)

  • Stanley Quan

    Social media is all about communication, one that can involve everyone and can spread like wildfire. For hospitals, being an engaged participant keeps them in the loop (information-wise), with both patients and the general community. Seems to me that it’s a lot better to be in the loop than out of it.

  • pcp

    “Maintaining a hospital social media presence is a full time job . . . In order for a hospital to be effective at Facebook or Twitter, someone needs to be there at all times to respond.”

    Great use of health care dollars! The hospital may have to fire a couple of RNs, but let’s get our priorities straight.

  • Smart Doc

    Twitter is a modestly useful tool for PR manipulation.

    Maybe it might have even helped that Ontario hospital that came off looking like an uncaring and sadistically cruel monster in its grotesque mishandling of the Baby Joseph fiasco.

  • W O

    I agree with Dr. Schattner. I am very skeptical of how much good a given hospital’s twitter feed is going to be for improving its care and reputation. I think more technical and information savvy people will recognize it for what it is: PR. Perhaps if it is taken seriously as a way for a hospital to communicate with its patients, staff and community in an authentic way, there may be promise. But I think you will likely reinforce most people’s impression of hospitals joining the ranks of politicians, corporations and celebrities in cheap, fluffy and disingenuous PR.

  • Matt

    Great posts, and I am on the side of using social media as a sounding board and forum for patients and hospital to communicate. Both positively and negatively. There can always be improvements in the process of hospital visits and listening to our community will help expedite improvement. Another important crisis management necessity is taking ownership of your institutions Google Review page. Don’t let an unhappy patient get ownership of your account before you do. I’ve seen that happen as well.

  • Jim Wilson

    “Maintaining a hospital social media presence is a full time job”. I have to wonder where this leaves smaller and rural hospitals that don’t even have a full time communications/PR/marketing staff let alone a full time social media staff. I believe that hospitals need to be engaged in social media and that there can be great benefits, but I struggle with the “how” for smaller organizations where people wear multiple hats and are max’ed out already.

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