The social networking phenomenon has hit such a peak that no one bats an eyelid when their mother, grandmother or even pet cat's profile page suddenly appears on Facebook. Such is the power of micro-blogging sites like Twitter that some celebrities have found themselves with more than 2 million followers – a figure roughly equal to the entire population of Slovenia.
The concept's social penetration therefore speaks for itself and inevitably offers a wealth of opportunities to hospitals looking to enhance connectivity with their patients. Facebook, for instance, allows users to create a profile page displaying a range of information, while Twitter enables users to create a stream of regular updates that other users can subscribe to.
Here we look at two innovative examples of hospitals that have used social networking mediums to build new links with their patients.
Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals, NHS Trust, UK
In May 2009, Epsom and St Helier Hospitals Trust joined the micro-blogging site Twitter, which it has used to post press releases, news stories, upcoming events and latest publications. The profile now has about 100 followers.
A 'fan page' of the trust is also available on Facebook, which has links to its recently redesigned main website. The trust has used these sites to complement its recently redesigned main website.
Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals web manager Alex Schleif says:
"At Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals, we are always looking for new ways to reach people that conventional ways of 'corporate communication' fail to reach. Social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook are a great way to engage with younger audiences, for example, who would not necessarily visit our website.
The great thing about Twitter is that nobody can just randomly throw messages at people. While news stories and press releases on our website require a certain length and format to work effectively, Twitter messages are short and snappy news or alerts that use only 140 characters. You have to therefore create an interest or need so that people subscribe to your feed.
We still mainly use Twitter to publish our press releases or news stories, but we also use it to alert people to our upcoming events or latest publications. We have number of ideas to extend our Twitter capabilities but no final decisions have yet been made.
At the moment we have almost 100 people or organisations following our Twitter feed, which is a very promising start. It shows that people accept this way of communicating and are happy to receive messages on this platform. The main traffic to our website still comes from search engines, bookmarks or referral links but Twitter is providing another useful and increasingly popular way of promoting content on our website. Our next online feedback survey will include Twitter-related questions to find out what people want to use and how they access our information.
We launched a brand new website earlier this year, which we hope will become one of the best NHS websites in the country. At the moment our online efforts are being concentrated on that. Potentially in the future, instant announcement services like Twitter could be used for real-time information about waiting times, closures or urgent messages relating to our services.
There are questions, however, regarding user accessibility that have to be answered first. There is certainly a lot of potential in these social networking sites but at the moment they are only an addition to our main website. We will carefully monitor the success of our Twitter feed and Facebook page to see how we can expand this service in the future."
Henry Ford Hospital, Henry Ford Health System, US
Two years ago, Henry Ford Health Systems began introducing podcasts that featured its doctors and nurses talking about a range of health issues. In the autumn of 2008, it made a more concentrated effort to explore other social media by starting a Twitter account.
The hospital then made the headlines when it performed a number of procedures with live Twitter feeds. It has also posted content on the video-sharing website YouTube
Henry Ford's web services manager William Ferris says:
"We started our Twitter account with two main objectives: to listen and respond to the patients and general public and to add another channel of communication. I don't think those roles have changed dramatically, but we have increased the emphasis on education via these tools.
With YouTube, for example, we are able to get some of our material to people who haven't seen it before. Some of the content we feature is from our Minds of Medicine series. Shows about life in the ER and orthopaedic oncology have been particularly popular.
Also, with our Twitter procedures and live chats we are able to give the public a unique look inside places they don't normally get to go. The public also gets access to experts in their field, even if it is only 140 characters at a time.
The Twitter-casts of surgeries in particular have been said to help 'humanise' the process. We have performed five of these live surgery feeds so far and have plans to continue doing about one per month. Each procedure is selected because it is either a relatively new treatment option or it is an issue that patients and other physicians and medical students would find interesting, such as an awake craniotomy.
The Twitter surgeries have proved to be immensely popular and are the main reason – along with the corresponding media coverage – for the growth of our Twitter follower numbers.
We do have plans to venture into Facebook and additional blogs in the future and we would also like to be more active participants in conversations on Twitter and other sites. We will certainly continue to evaluate new tools and technologies as they become available."