According to an April 2010 study conducted by the marketing firm Epsilon, 40 percent of online consumers turn to social media for health information. Separate research by digital marketing company iCrossing shows that, within a 12-month span, 59 percent of adults searched online for health-and-wellness advice, and 55 percent of adults sought answers from doctors. The rise of social media has the healthcare industry stuck between a rock and a hard place. Consumers actively research—and converse about—healthcare topics on the social Web. Dangerously absent from most of those conversations, however, has been the healthcare provider, the traditional source of those answers and still the source of most medical treatment.
Online portals such as WebMD and Yahoo! Health have earned praise for advancing Health 2.0 and providing consumers with interactive (and reliable) health-oriented content. Traditional healthcare providers have largely failed to compete due to privacy restrictions, a lack of resources, and uncertainty over where to begin. One company, however, is carving out a social presence—without compromising its privacy standards or its reputation as a trusted healthcare advisor.
Cleveland Clinic, one of the largest hospitals in the country, not only actively maintains profiles on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn but also runs the Cleveland Clinic Online Health Chats, two online channels dedicated to providing consumers with professional-grade healthcare information. One chat is devoted to connecting consumers with live nurses. The other is a resource for people—whether or not they’re Cleveland Clinic patients—to connect with a physician regarding a given healthcare topic.
The chats allow consumers to ask questions anonymously, gain information from a trusted source, and access archived conversations. Betsy Stovsky, who manages online communications for Cleveland Clinic’s Heart and Vascular Institute, says the Web chats were a success as soon as they began in 2007. “It’s been a great venue for people to ask questions and get to know the clinic a bit,” she says. “But mostly to give people an opportunity to be educated semi-anonymously and to chat with a physician.”
Cleveland Clinic conducts six to eight live chat events per month, on topics ranging from pediatrics to cancer to women’s health. The chats—marketed through email newsletters, the clinic’s Web site, various healthcare boards, and occasionally through paid online ads—are open to the public, and the clinic asks that participants refrain from revealing personal information. The goal, after all, is to share reputable information, not individual diagnoses. As a healthcare organization, Stovsky notes, Cleveland Clinic is legally bound to maintain patient privacy.
Stovsky admits that, to a certain degree, the clinic is still trying to get a handle on Health 2.0 and the rise of the community in healthcare. Some risks are mitigated by keeping the chats structured and having participants submit questions for a quick review before they’re posted. “With a lot of community sites, there are patients giving each other advice,” she says. “Sometimes that can be helpful, but sometimes it can be harmful. In [Web chat], people are asking questions and the answers are from a healthcare professional—not from other patients with the condition.”
At Cleveland Clinic, social media means delivering more information into the hands of more people—regardless of those people’s status as paying customers. Registration numbers for the scheduled chats vary from 10 to 100 per session, but Stovsky reports that some transcripts, posted online, eventually accumulate thousands of hits. “Everything is so complicated with healthcare—it’s hard to get in to see doctors, and often medical terms are difficult to understand,” Stovsky admits. “This is a great way to gain more understanding of treatment options.”
Steve Case, the former chief executive officer of online-community pioneer AOL, insisted at a 2008 healthcare event: “Community is the killer app in healthcare.” The sector may have been relatively slow to adopt, say, social networking avatars, but institutions such as Cleveland Clinic seem to be closely checking the pulse of the social Web, and making advances as they see fit—often the best prescription for success.