How Sarasota Memorial Hospital is leveraging social media to build better relationships. Q&A with Shawn Halls.


Recently, Weise Communications sat down with Shawn Halls of Sarasota Memorial Hospital (SMH) to discuss social media’s impact on SMH and the way in which they communicate with the community. Below is our Q & A session.

Weise: How long has Sarasota Memorial Hospital (SMH) been using Twitter?

SMH: We registered the site in November 2008 and promoted a $49 cardiac disease assessment special we were offering in December. But we didn’t start actively posting or following anyone until March 2009.

Weise: How has SMH’s Twitter account been able to add value to your patients’ experience?

SMH: When we first started we were like a lot of organizations, just trying to figure out how, or even if, Twitter could be part of our larger communications strategy. We tweeted our hospital promotions and a few stories from patients who had called to praise our care.

Then in April we were contacted through Twitter by a former patient. She had a somewhat negative experience while in our care, but actually had more of a negative experience trying to figure out who she should contact to discuss the issue.

Suddenly, Twitter, and social media in general, became not just a platform to communicate to patients, but a tangible way for our community to communicate directly with us as well.

Since that first patient contact, we have been Direct Messaged through Twitter by other patients with various questions. In our experience, more often than not a patient’s frustration is not about the care they received but the challenges associated with navigating healthcare.

Many people still prefer to call us directly, but increasingly customers are using Twitter and other social media platforms to initiate contact. It’s an interesting dynamic.

Most recently we had a patient’s family member find us on Twitter and ask for the name of a local florist so they could send flowers and ensure delivery prior to the patient’s surgery. This was a really easy one to handle, and we were able to communicate back to him within 10 minutes of his initial contact.

(SMH’s Twitter account)

Weise: Were there any reservations about using Twitter to communicate with the general public? If so, how did you overcome/justify establishing an online presence?

SMH: We did encounter resistance, because there are still a lot of unknowns about Twitter and other social media platforms as they relate to business. All social media platforms are blocked in our healthcare system, so we had to petition the chief information officer to allow our team access to Twitter. There is a valid concern that spending too much time online may distract employees, but we believed a balance could be struck. An organization with quality managers who engage their employees on a daily basis greatly reduce the risk of distraction. Certainly there are some who might abuse the privilege, but there are ways to prevent abuse that do not include a blanket policy to block access for all. Remember the era of codes to access copy machines? The idea was companies would lose too much money if employees had free access. Copy codes seem absurd in 2009, but we’re facing a similar issue with social media access today.

Weise: Do you think all healthcare providers should establish an online presence via social media? Why?

SMH: We do believe it’s important to have a social media presence. While social media won’t replace other avenues of communication, it’s important for providers to encourage communication through avenues people are using. With 200 million people on Facebook and nearly 10 million on Twitter, healthcare providers are missing an opportunity if they do not have a social media presence. Increasingly, healthcare is about building relationships with our customers. In this era of choice, patients choose which doctor to see, which outpatient lab to use, and certainly which hospital they choose. Social media helps us foster relationships with our customers by humanizing the healthcare system. We’re not just Sarasota Memorial Health Care System, we are 4,000 individuals who are part of our larger communities, and we enjoy communicating with our customers because they’re also our neighbors and friends. Certainly there are challenges for healthcare providers in establishing their social media presence, but we believe the benefits outweigh the challenges.

The one caveat, I’d say, is don’t create a social media presence if someone is not directly responsible for maintaining that presence. As effective as social media can be, an unanswered contact or an infrequently updated Facebook page could have n opposite effect, leaving prospective customers wondering if other aspects of their care would be hit or miss as well. At a fundamental level, social media is an extension of your healthcare brand, so it’s important to treat it with the same level of attention as other communication strategies.

Weise: SMH also has a Facebook fan page. What value is your page creating for the hospital and your community?

SMH: Hospitals and healthcare providers are brands people typically prefer not to interact with. Most of the time, people only use our services when they are sick or otherwise vulnerable, and healthcare is one of the few brands that can literally have life and death implications.

As I mentioned above, increasingly healthcare is about fostering relationships, and while Twitter is excellent for communication, Facebook allows for a more intimate interaction with our community. We are able to post photos of community events and share information that may not necessarily be hospital business but impacts the community in which we live and operate.

We recently posted information about eight students who received educational scholarships from us because they are going into the healthcare field. There isn’t really another format where we could have communicated that information, but it’s perfect for Facebook.

(SMH’s Facebook page)

Weise: Does SMH have any plans to adopt more social media into their marketing strategy? Perhaps, creating a YouTube channel to show video testimonials, events, interviews with doctors etc.?

SMH: Each market is unique, and Sarasota is no different. What’s splashed across the media today may not be the same next year. Since social media is so dynamic, we let our customers dictate which platforms to use based on their adoption of it. We are in the process of coordinating our first Twitter surgery broadcast – an amazing brain mapping procedure where the patient is awake during the entire procedure – and we’ll use YouTube to archive it. We’re also actively developing our Flikr, MySpace, and Delicious accounts and believe there are tremendous opportunities in those applications to help with patient education.

Weise: If you had one piece of advice for someone new to Twitter, what would you offer?
SMH: Don’t be afraid to bring a little personality into your tweets. It’s a lot more engaging for your followers and a lot more fun for you. ☺

About Shawn:

Sarasota Memorial’s Twitter feed is managed by Shawn Halls. Shawn is the market research manager at Sarasota Memorial and is responsible for measuring and communicating consumer insights throughout the organization. Before joining Sarasota Memorial, Shawn knocked ‘em dead at the University of South Florida as a senior statistician who had the unusual skill of being able to communicate complex statistical findings to statisticians and non-statisticians alike. Shawn holds a master’s degree in applied sociology from the University of Central Florida, proving you can actually get a job with a sociology degree.

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