The Cold, Straight-up Truth About Social Media in Healthcare

I’m going to be considered a pariah in social media circles for this (it won’t be the first time) but it needs to be said: the core value of social media in healthcare isn’t “about relationships” nor “engaging with each other” nor “being social”. Are those nice things? Yes. Are they core? No. They’re peripheral uses if we so choose them – ancillary benefits of a process which run wider and deeper than social media. So what’s core?

Here are four:


As of today, most people who turn to the Web concerning health are seeking content and information about symptoms, diseases, treatments, and providers. The two primary ports for that seeking include Search and Social. Search dominates, but Social is growing. As people use the Web more and more, and find themselves mixing social media and healthcare, they’ll start to navigate between Search and Social – either for improving their gathering of information, or for people who can help them.

Ultimately, this information gathering and head-hunting is about decision-making. The key weakness of Healthcare social media may not be so much in information accuracy, but rather Interpretation. It’s the interpretation of medical data which eludes common sense.

So a core problem – and opportunity – of social media in healthcare is addressing Interpretation. Knowing how to deploy Twitter or Facebook or a blog is a joke compared to that task. Today’s frenzy of discussion of social media in healthcare is primarily due to a lack of Web literacy in the industry.

Behavioral Change

If there’s no change in behavior – of some kind – then what’s the point? Whatever people are doing on social networks or with healthcare applications ultimately has to come around to behavioral shifts – either shifting behavior from unsafe to safe and effective, or in shifting moderately healthy behavior upward.

For the most part, social media are not going to impact behavior – not in and by themselves. Not by a long stretch for most instances. Social media and other digital technologies may play parts – placing the right kinds of interfaces at the right time and context and process.

And even if social media may play a bigger role, the specific kinds won’t be consumer media like Twitter and Facebook. (You can read about what might here.)

The Consequences of Relationships

Do relationships matter? Yes, of course! But in health, it’s the consequences of those relationships which are central to the benefits/costs of social media in healthcare. Generally and psychologically speaking, it’s a pretty safe bet to agree that human interaction has a positive impact on health. We pretty much know this.

But what about the other consequences? Do we know the long-term benefits/costs of these relationships in terms of actual behavioral outcomes?

Given that the medium is the message (not just shapes the message, it is the message), whatever relationship develop online must somehow account for the media. We haven’t yet figured that out yet. I would plead for my Twitter friends to reflect a moment on the flavor of their relationships they’ve developed via Twitter – there’s that certain something about them, isn’t there? Think about it, man!

The point is that we need to get over the whole “it’s about relationships” meme – not only is it tiring, it’s distracting us from the work that matters – effecting positive learning experiences while shifting behavior in accordance with good health.

The Statement of Shareholder Equity

Money, it’s a hit – don’t give me that do goody good…

Ah, the dollar! The topic of social media conversation everybody works to explain away (after all, it’s all about relationships, engagement and being social 😉

Well, my friends, there is no such thing as a free cheesesteak. Everything is an opportunity cost. If you’re doing one thing, you’re not doing another – and the name of the game is to do that which offers most value. (Back to decision-making above.)

The fact is, for us to get to a state of Healthcare Social Media which truly unleashes its power to connect, enable, empower and ease suffering, we are going to need the contributions of providers, institutions, payors, pharmaceutical and medical device producers. These are not players who can do this on their clock without some kind of re-funding – be it direct or indirect.

A particular social medium doesn’t have to provide direct financial ROI, but an overall online presence does need to have some favorable impact on ROE – these two measures are often confused (for instance the sum of individual ROIs on capital projects do not add up to total ROE for an enterprise).

Financial flows aren’t solely the only enhancer of equity – there *are* intangible activities and organization-external assets which can grow its equity. Goodwill is the classic one, but in today’s media environment there are others shaping.

But if you recognize that every item on a company’s financial statements is ultimately the result of social transactions (Revenues: relations with customers; Expenses: relations with vendors, employees, financial intermediaries; Equity: the net of those revenues and expenses *and* relations with stockholders), it’s clear that social media has a financial place to hold, and should not be dismissed and explained away as too often happens.

We are entering a new kind of economic physics, and I suspect we’re currently experiencing an evolutionary inflection between the history and future of Capitalism. For social media have brought forth the possibility of fusing the means of production with its ownership on an unprecedented scale. The clearer insight we have into the financial implications, costs and benefits of social media activities, the better will be our understanding of Healthcare economics – and, consequently, on social media’s true meaning in Healthcare.

@PhilBaumann – @HealthIsSocial – Newsletter




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