Is Your Hospital’s Online Community for Real?

flickr: JoeDuck

I spent last week in a 1940’s-era cabin on the Oregon Coast – no TV, no Wi-Fi, an outdoor shower – not quite “off the grid” like Dan’s escape a few weeks back – but as close to it as I come.

The cabin is nestled in a small neighborhood cove surrounded by cliffs (tsunami warning signs abound). My family and I have been going to the cabin for the Fourth of July holiday for the last 14 years, and cell reception has never been reliable. It’s a low-bar-to-no-bar cell reception area…until this year. They must have raised another tower in the area because in previous years we could not get cell reception in the cabin, but this year (sadly?/gladly?) we could.

My reading material for the week included Alone Together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other by Sherry Turkle. Turkle is an MIT professor and a licensed psychologist. She’s been investigating technology’s impact on children and adults for decades, and her book is fascinating.

Reading her book while at the cabin during the year of improved cell reception made an even greater impact on me. With eight people in a very small cabin, and all of us – teens and adults alike – having smart phones, I became hyper aware of Turkle’s concern about how “tethered” we are to our cell phones and the “connecting” and “disconnecting” effects technology can have on our activities.

Are online communities “for real?”

One of Turkle’s most interesting considerations for me as a social media strategist was her investigation of the meaning of “community,” including the differences between online and off-line communities. In her book, she shares stories of people who desired online communities over communities of friends, family or coworkers.

Turkle argues that community should have a narrower definition: “If we start to call online spaces where we are with other people ‘communities,’ it is easy to forget what the word used to mean. From its derivation, it literally means ‘to give among each other.’ It is good to have this standard for online places. …Communities are constituted by physical proximity, shared concerns, real consequences and common responsibilities. Its members help each other in the most practical ways” (pgs. 238-239).

Fostering offline communities from online spaces

Can a healthcare chat room sponsored by your hospital or center of excellence become a real “community” by Turkle’s standards? Members share concerns, but they may lack physical proximity, real consequences and common responsibilities. Let’s face it, it is harder to prepare and deliver a meal for a community member who is recovering from cancer than to send a few brief words of comfort and support via a chat room.

If we truly want to support our patient communities, can we enhance our online support chats with physical, in-person activities? Should we? How do we see our role in community building and wellness support? Since hospitals have regional service areas, the addition of physical proximity could be easily added.

Next, the hard work that Turkle calls “real consequences and common responsibilities.” Will physical gatherings of online support community lead to a greater sense of responsibility toward community members?

I think there is a lot of possibility here. Although I do believe people can derive support and inspiration from online sites, I appreciate Turkle’s concerns over the loss of responsibility toward one another. Do we, as busy hospital administrators, claim that we offer support because we now have online chat rooms for our cancer patients? Or a blog for our new parents? Or a pharmacy information website for those we send home with new prescriptions?

Social media offers many benefits to hospitals in the areas of distribution information, building awareness, advancing public relations, promoting wellness, and it is efficient in handling many of our daily tasks such as registration. However, if we want to be true community leaders, let’s revisit Turkle’s idea of community– physical proximity, shared concerns, real consequences and common responsibilities–and ask ourselves how our own hospital’s social media might be a launching pad to nurturing real communities.

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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. Read about our services. Start a conversation. Email us or call us at 503-472-5512.

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