Social Media: Match Made in Health?

While there are the online health care pioneers making a way for themselves in reaching patients, not everyone is happy to see them. At the #HCSM chat on Sept.5, 2010, several participants openly discussed if there is anyone who should not use social media in this arena, and several indicated that some candidates fit the bill. For openers, @nickdawson stated, “people who have no interest in listening, learning, helping, healing or engaging should not use SM.” That pretty much ruled out single-minded marketers who are interested in their promotional material, rather than sharing value.

Not exactly a controversial view, but it is tell-tale sign of what the expectations are in this space. For companies and individuals unprepared to have true exchange, their goals will be limited at best. However, even for those who might not make the best fit for SM, there is some activity in which they can partake. One of the most generous voices was that of @epatientdave who remarked, “I can’t imagine anyone who should not, under any circumstances, use SM. Not even listen?” This is the best kept secret of social media. By simply listening, neophytes to this cyber playground can learn a great deal about those they seek to help, inform, and influence.

Still, the HCSM crowd seemed to agree that health insurance companies are persona non grata in this venue. Given that one of the key ingredients is genuine trust in building relationships online, that industry is at a disadvantage in entering the realm. Its practices are notorious, tainting even the most timid explorations on social media as being suspect. Consequently, until its goals are viewed to assist people rather than deny claims, the public perception will persist and their SM efforts will necessarily be thwarted.

Even if health insurers could somehow transform their current reputations, not every activity would be welcome online either. @sixuntilme remarked during the chat, “IMO, I don’t want to be informed about a claim denial through Facebook.” This leads to a more subtle point: assuming you think you ought to use social media what is appropriate?

I will take the liberty of exploring this topic using pharmaceutical companies as an example. On this score, I think drug development firms can benefit most from listening as @epatientdave intones. I would encourage these firms to establish a rapport with patient groups online in pure listening mode. If drug companies were to ask online patient social networks about what information they need to make informed decisions about clinical trial participation, for example, and integrate their findings into their direct-to-patient materials, they would be more successful, I suspect. They could even inquire about the biggest hurdles to clinical research participation right from the patients and learn to adopt better solutions to meet their needs. This is where listening has its greatest benefits without incurring risks in this highly regulated space.

Should pharma companies do more on the clinical side of the equation with SM? I don’t think so. When it comes to openly soliciting clinical trial participants, that is where I think drug firms should support local clinical sites to establish their own social media footprint. Aside from running the risk of tainting their patient pools and otherwise contaminating their data, pharma companies would be the biggest targets by the legal community poised to monitor their undertakings with an eye towards prospective litigation and a waiting hostile public. These are not the ingredients for beneficial social media engagement. There is a more important reason for pharma to step away from social media in the clinical recruitment area too. All clinical study enrollment is local, so helping neighborhood sites recruit more effectively makes sense. Plus, sites don’t carry the anti-corporate baggage of pharma companies. As they develop their SM profiles, their ability to recruit only becomes more sophisticated. In my mind, this activity clearly belongs to research sites.

What are other examples of companies and professional categories in health care that should not engage in social media? We welcome your ideas on this question and feedback on the comments presented above. If we have learned anything from our past HCSM chats, one patient’s social media heaven is another’s hell.

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