New Study: How U.S. Hospitals Use Social Media

flickr: Digammo

A new study, How US Hospitals Use Social Media, was published in a recent issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine (May 2011 by authors Thaker, Nowacki and Mehta of the Cleveland Clinic and Edwards of Touro University in California).

I knew, from keeping abreast of Ed Bennett’s Hospital Social Network List, that the adoption rate for social media among hospitals was slow – so the initial numbers were not that surprising to me. For the study, researchers reviewed the Web sites of 1800 hospitals that were randomly sampled from the 6436 hospitals in the American Hospital Association 2008 Annual Survey.

Only 21% of hospitals use social media. Those that were more likely to use social media included hospitals that were large, urban, or part of a health system; were run by nonprofit, nongovernment organizations; were involved in graduate medical education; or primarily treated children.

One of the most interesting parts of the study was noting how the hospitals were using social media. Most used it to target a general audience (97%), provide content about the entire organization (93%), announce news and events (91%), promote health (90%) and further public relations (89%).  Researchers noted “most institutions use social media for unidirectional communication.” As a strategist, this usage snapshot indicates to me a few areas where hospitals need to improve, and a few areas worth celebrating.

Things to celebrate

That 90% of hospitals are using their website to promote health is a plus. Pew Internet and American Life Project has reported that 83% of adults who are online have used the Internet to access health information – so focusing on an established interest is a good start to an online program. However, localizing that interest is even better.

Connecting patients with local doctors, clinics and your hospital is a real advantage to all involved. However, with limited budgets, how can you compete with commercial sites with their national advertising campaigns? I’ve written about fusing old and new media, developing promotions, the power of word of mouth and effective use of public relations to bolster your social media exposure in previous blogs, and these methods could help to more effectively promote your hospital’s online efforts.

Things to improve


The most disturbing trend is that even those hospitals adopting social media have kept the old, one-way media model: sending information out to the masses. The “unidirectional” nature of the communication that the researchers noted means that most hospitals are using social media to distribute information to the patients, but they are not giving patients the opportunity to respond or engage. Social media needs to be social.

Having a brochure about a service available on the web can be helpful, but what if patients want to have a conversation? What support could your staff and other patients offer? If the openness of the Internet is too broad, consider creating a closed, opt-in social website with Ning or a chat-room housed on your Center of Excellence webpage (such as the Birthing Center or Cancer Center home page).

For example, you could give the opt-in registration information to parents-to-be as part of their birthing classes at your Birthing Center; or offer log-in information to cancer patients as part of their introduction to treatment appointment. If you don’t offer a forum where patients can engage, patients will find their own commercial sites to fill the gap (here’s a sample forum for cancer patients; here’s a sample site for parents).

Are you part of the 21% or the 79%?


If you are among the early adopters, congratulations. Evidence has demonstrated that people are seeking health information online and you are providing it and localizing it.  Your hospital will surely benefit from a strong, early online presence. Just don’t overlook the key potential in social media–that it is social. Be willing to take the next step and engage with patients.

For those 79% of you sitting on the sidelines, you may want to lace up your shoes, begin warming up and start formulating your game plan … your patients have already started.


How we help

Hive Strategies helps hospitals engage patients through social media. We don’t manage social media. Instead, we help hospitals develop an effective social media strategy and mentor them through the implementation process. Start a conversation. Email us or call us at 503-472-5512.


2 replies
  1. Jean Kelso Sandlin
    Jean Kelso Sandlin says:

    Thanks for the feedback. I agree with your comment re: in-house experts. Hospitals have such a high level of expertise among staff and physicians who are often overlooked in favor of “pre-packaged data-base” health information. Often, these decisions are made because of concerns re: time constraints on staff and physicians; but working together, hospitals can develop a strong, localized program that features their own experts. A localized approach ultimately fosters a greater sense of trust among community members…and trust and healthcare need to go hand-in-hand. Thanks again for taking the time to comment.

  2. Simon Sikorski, M.D. Twitter @medmarketingcoe
    Simon Sikorski, M.D. Twitter @medmarketingcoe says:

    Great post. I can especially relate on making the social media campaigns local.

    Oftentimes hospitals decide on doing social media but instead share general information about general things. Always bring it back to the expertise and the people you can find at the hospital and your ROI will grow.


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