Are we sitting on the bench, or ready to jump in the game? The Impact of Social Media on Healthcare Public Relations

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Fifteen years ago social media was almost non-existent. Imagine that. Profile pictures weren’t being uploaded with status updates to Facebook by individuals, let alone by government(s) and big companies. LinkedIn was just getting started and we’d definitely never heard of Twitter!

So, what has been the impact of social media from a PR perspective?

“Significant” is the correct response! That said, the role social media plays from a healthcare public relations perspective is tricky and is quite different than other business areas such as travel and leisure products.

Healthcare is a highly-regulated and controlled industry and, let’s face it, social media is neither highly regulated nor controlled.  The lack of control and the possibility of misinformation or false claims being made via social media, not only make the healthcare community uncomfortable but also put patients, healthcare institutions, and pharmaceutical brands at risk.

It’s interesting when you break down healthcare into different groups—the patient, the physician, the government, the pharmaceutical industry—and evaluate the impact social media has had on these different areas.  The impact does vary.

For example, let’s look at the impact social media has made on patients, the consumers of healthcare. Social media has done incredible things for patients and often times this is driven by other patients. Social media has provided the patient with a voice and an audience. Social media has allowed grassroots advocacy the ability to grow online and reach further than ever before.  Now, thanks to social media, patients across the country and around the world have the ability to support one another, to share information, to receive information, and to be part of the conversation. They have the ability, like never before, to fight for their rights when it comes to healthcare and access to physicians, procedures, and pharmaceutical products.

Patient support groups already in place have been able to jump on the social media bandwagon through tools like Facebook, where they can create their own pages, share information about education sessions, post videos and webcasts, share research findings, and provide tools to drive advocacy on their critical issues. Social media has also filled a void in communities where  support was previously nonexistent, truly making a positive impact on many people’s health journeys.

Despite some of the obvious benefits of social media in healthcare, it also presents many challenges. For example,  physicians, government(s), and pharmaceutical companies may be curious about social media and the role they could play as contributors or participants, but in reality the social media space is not monitored or regulated and people are free to say what they want, when they want, to whomever will listen. The challenge for some groups in engaging and/or supporting social media is that it may present risks greater than benefits.

For example, let’s pretend that pharmaceutical product X has been approved and is available in Canada for the treatment of disease Y. The product manufacturer decides to share the good news by putting up a Facebook post and tweeting about the availability. While these actions may seem benign, they are not! In fact,  these actions would likely be deemed as promotional and direct to consumer advertising, which would be in violation of Health Canada’s policy “The Distinction Between Advertising and Other Activities.”

Another point of consideration: if the pharmaceutical industry were to actively engage in social media related to products, they would technically be starting a conversation. This would be considered “promotional,” and would be something that anyone could follow, retweet, ask questions about, provide comments/judgment on, skew information about, and share experiences (negative or positive). Social media presents a perfect platform for misinformation, which has the potential for dangerous outcomes. After all, this is people’s health we’re talking about!

What happens if someone reports an adverse event or a side effect via social media? Who’s responsible for capturing this information and properly reporting it via the appropriate channels? And ensuring it’s a true representation of what’s actually occurred?

This could sound like a lot of social media doom and gloom, but it’s not. Social media does undoubtedly add value in the healthcare sphere. Take hospitals for example, where social media serves as an interactive communications vehicle that provides timely updates on critical topics of interest to followers.  A recent example of this was an update  Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre posted on their Facebook page regarding a possible Ebola Virus patient being treated in the hospital. In this post they were able to confirm that the patient did not have Ebola while also reassuring followers that Sunnybrook was prepared for Ebola. This is social media at its best, providing up-to-date, timely information that people want to read.

Because social media is here to stay, it’s important to be responsible and informed when using it. Many leading healthcare companies are working in collaboration with social media strategists to adopt best practices and define parameters that allow the organization to benefit from social engagement. When you put creative minds together, new tools and strategies are developed all the time. As we move into a new era of social media it will be interesting to see how the healthcare sector learns to adapt as a result.

About the blogger:
Fiona Bassett Cram, Healthcare communications & stakeholder relations
Fiona brings more than 12 years of healthcare communications and stakeholder relations experience to Felicity. Prior to joining the Felicity team, Fiona worked for Roche Canada where she was responsible for leading the communications and stakeholder relations strategy on a number of the company’s brands. In her free time, Fiona enjoys long distance running and spending quality time with her husband and three little girls.

Posted on: April 1st, 2015 by

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