Digital healthcare marketing: Using social media in a regulatory context

Digital healthcare marketing: Using social media in a regulatory context

Many companies from almost every industry are active on social media these days. The healthcare industry has been relatively slow at embracing the use of social media, but are starting to realize how useful social media can be for marketing purposes. 

The industry claims that the reason for this late adoption is the lack of understanding how social media can be utilized. Their primary concern, however, is the affect on privacy and HIPAA compliance. How can a healthcare provider or any other industry operating within a regulatory context, make sure they don’t violate regulations and jeopardize patient- or client privacy?

Seek legal advice
The first and most important step should always be to seek legal advice and make sure the company lawyers are involved in the process early on. Since recordkeeping is an issue for regulatory environments, an expert in this should also be involved early on.

Establish guidelines, communicate these clearly to staff and train them
The next step should be to establish some guidelines and detailed procedures that are clear and communicated to all stakeholders. What kind of content needs to be cleared for posting at managerial level, and what can the employee handle? Policies should be developed for managing the companies’ social media channels, as well as policies for employee’s “civilian” social media activities. An “innocent” Instagram picture shared on an employee’s private feed could potentially violate a patient’s privacy. Make sure everyone understands that social media should be handled with care in these environments. Your employees should understand and support the policies as well as get appropriate training early on. Encourage your employees to keep their private and social media separate to avoid jeopardizing the reputation of your company and the employee.

Evaluate often
Make a point of evaluating the procedures and policies often. Social media is a dynamic, fast evolving communications channel that requires you to be alert and adaptable. Every form of experience managing your channels will affect your policies. Make sure you take all experiences into account and develop a knowledge sharing system such as a weekly meeting or an internal discussion-space for the employees that work with your social media channels.

Never practice medicine online
One of the most basic yet important elements of a policy is to never practice medicine online. Make sure your employees keep any medical advice off line, even if it’s “just” a close friend asking one of your employees for advice on how to handle a muscle ache on Facebook. If your employee is a healthcare professional it could potentially put you in trouble. Patients could also unintentionally and unknowingly put themselves at risk of privacy violations. Take all conversations that concern a specific person offline. General “tips” or “how tos” are acceptable though; i.e., “5 ways to stay hydrated during the summer.”

Know what people say
Monitor your social media channels closely to make sure you remove any posts or comments that could unintentionally or intentionally violate HIPAA regulations, and above all interact with your audience. Respond to general questions, direct them to the right phone-numbers and give general preventive healthcare advice. Make sure you delete or respond to any potential HIPAA- and/or privacy threatening comments instead of editing them. According to Hive Strategies, if you edit a comment you become the co-author and therefore assume liability. Don’t limit yourself to just monitoring your own channels. Monitor mentions of your company and your products on forums, messageboards and blogs as well.

More content, Less Platform
Treat social media as you would treat any other outlet when it comes to privacy issues as well as record preservation. Have your legal experts help you and make sure you train your staff specifically for record keeping. According to Forbes contributor Joanna Belby one good question to ask yourself is: “Would it be retained if it was in paper format”. Forbes even addresses the common social media practice of sharing a third party article and the question of whether or not the article should be kept on record.
Don’t be afraid
Although you should tread with utmost care in these waters, being afraid is counterproductive. Many claim that fear of misinterpretation keeps them from social media communication. But imagine a discussion thread taking place with incorrect direction on how to use your pharmaceutical or your device? Whether you like it or not, people are going to talk about you and your products.

Be a thought leader and an educator
Take on the role of being a thought leader and an educator within your field. The focus on your social media should not be about giving specific medical advice to patients but about answering common questions, giving preventive and general healthcare advice. Stay up to date with tendencies and healthcare related news and comment on that instead. The Mayo Clinic is an example of a healthcare provider doing an excellent job on social media.

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