HIStalk looks at how healthcare use of social networks is changing in light of consumer expectations and provider comfort levels.
The rise of social media usage in healthcare settings has increased over the last several years as the entire industry has moved to a more digital-centric way of doing business. Whether it’s patient portals, online bill pay, way-finding apps, or online appoint check-in, patients — and providers, to some degree — have become used to conducting the business of healthcare via convenient, easily accessible, Web-based tools.
While patients in the US may never log in to patient portals with Facebook credentials, their providers are inching their way ever closer to incorporating social networking tools into relationship-building aspects of care.
Twitter Consults Take Off
Will social networks ever be used as bona fide care tools? With HIPAA’s tight hold on patient data and the love/hate relationship consumers have with privacy, the role of said networks as diagnostic tools remains a pipe dream at best. Not so in India, however, where Practo has added Twitter-based healthcare consults to its ecosystem of digital tools for providers and patients.
The startup, which claims to be Asia’s number one physician search engine, launched the @AskPracto Twitter account in early April, giving users in India, the Philippines, and Singapore the ability to tweet their health questions to the handle and receive responses back from Practo-affiliated physicians in near real time.
“We are excited about our partnership with Practo, as this addresses a fundamental need for users and opens up the benefit of real-time healthcare information access to millions of users,” said Ravi Bhaskaran, Twitter’s head of business development for India and South Asia, leading up to the launch.
Bhaskaran’s comment highlights the need for Web-based tools that make it easier for people to access care. With a population of over 1.25 billion, India has more Internet users than the US has people. Healthcare access, especially in rural areas, is — at the risk of understating a nationwide problem — a challenge for those looking to connect with physicians at brick-and-mortar facilities. Thus, mobile, Web-based communication tools seem like the go-to answer for issues of access and provider availability.
“We believe that healthcare issues can be addressed and awareness can be raised by social networks like Twitter,” says Practo Assistant Vice President of Marketing Varun Dubey. “With this partnership, we are making it super easy for people to get access to healthcare information right from Twitter. This collaboration will enable millions of consumers to get quick access to relevant healthcare information and make better, more informed decisions about their health.”
Response to the collaboration has been overwhelmingly positive. “We saw impressive traction on the first day of the campaign,” says Dubey, “with over 5,000 questions being tweeted by consumers with answers sent from @AskPracto. More than 8 million people have participated so far on the social media platform, and this number is growing every day. We’ve actually received questions from many more countries including the US, Australia, and even parts of Africa and Latin America.”
Such collaborations may offer citizens in less developed countries an easy, albeit extremely high-level, answer to issues of access. Their ability to succeed in the US remains doubtful, especially when it comes to the inevitable questions of privacy and physician reimbursement. Dubey is quick to note that Practo takes patient privacy “extremely seriously. Consumers can always come straight to Practo Consult and ask their questions anonymously.”
He is slightly more evasive when it comes to how Practo physicians are reimbursed for their time on Twitter, moving the conversation back to the company’s proprietary physician-patient consulting platform. “All healthcare specialists on the Practo Consult platform respond to questions in order to generate more awareness and enable consumers to make more informed decisions about their health,” he explains. “This in turn helps them build their value as a qualified, experienced, and trusted doctor. If you think about it, a patient who gets the right answer on Practo Consult from a verified doctor will trust that doctor and is likely to visit him or her in the future for any healthcare problem that needs to be assessed in person.”
While the @AskPracto handle is likely part of a larger marketing push to drive users to the company’s private consulting platform, it can’t be denied that opening up healthcare expertise by way of social media will likely offer underserved patients an easy, affordable way to have their high-level healthcare questions answered.
Messaging Apps Make Provider Wish Lists
The concept of healthcare diagnoses via social media seems to be taking a different turn here in the US, with secure messaging apps piquing the most provider interest and vendors responding accordingly. Remote consulting startup HealthTap launched its service via Facebook’s Messenger app last month, offering users the ability to submit questions and receive answers from the company’s physicians covering 141 specialties.
“HealthTap is a really cool platform,” says Piedmont Healthcare (GA) Chief Consumer Officer Matt Gove, “and them getting into Messenger makes all the sense in the world. But when you’re a healthcare provider, you have a different cost structure. We have a different way of interacting with people. We have a different goal in terms of increasing the health of our communities and building long-term relationships with individuals. It’s a bit different than the app that allows you to quickly ask a question and keep moving.”
“We’re certainly interested in how to use digital technology to provide alternative models of care,” he adds, “but I haven’t seen the use of social networks to diagnose people. Where I am most excited is not doing it inside social networks, but doing it inside messaging apps. That’s what has the most potential – inside Facebook Messenger where you can have a secure conversation with people about their medical issues.”
“We occasionally use messenger apps to engage with folks about their specific experience with us,” Gove continues. “It’s not as much about the clinical side as it is about the experience side. To be fair, in many ways, I think the customer’s perception of quality is really about the experience they have with us. The average person doesn’t understand clinical quality, but they do understand if you smile and say hello and ask them if they need something. Did you provide them with an easy to understand bill? That’s where the experience breaks down for most people. It’s not in the direct interaction with the caregiver. That’s where we’ve been focusing on — how to better use secure messaging apps to have conversations with people.”
Gove adds that a HealthTap-type messenger app would be nice to have, but it’s not likely to happen until the service is seen as more than a novelty, a sentiment based on Piedmont’s rollout of virtual visits. “We’re getting extraordinarily good reception for it,” he explains. “There’s a hurdle to get people over the novelty piece and see this as just as good as what they’re used to. I would put HealthTap getting into Messenger into that same category. I think messenger apps are an important part of the future. We are not there yet, and if Piedmont isn’t there yet, there won’t be many systems that are.”
The Future Role of Social
Gove, who has gained a well-earned reputation for pushing the boundaries of social media marketing within healthcare organizations like Piedmont and Grady Health System (GA), continues to look for innovative ways to use social media within the healthcare setting. Looking ahead, he hopes to get a better handle on using the social networks that have the most user traction and growth.
“I’ve yet to meet a health system that does Snapchat very well,” he says. “Most of my colleagues describe it as a cesspool. That may or may not be correct. It certainly made me laugh when they said it. It reinforces the fact that Facebook will always be a very powerful place for us to be. Twitter isn’t there and isn’t going to get there. Instagram is okay, but I don’t see it evolving to something that becomes a great tool for engagement. I think you’ve got to look at where people are aggregating and excited and engaged right now and figure out how to best leverage that.”
For now and the foreseeable future, provider use of social media seems to be about building relationships with patients and prospective customers. Gove believes that health systems are just getting to the point where they can use social media in an effective way to have conversations and build those relationships. Making the leap to using Twitter as a clinical tool is not in their near futures.
“I think most providers are looking at social as a way to maintain relationships, which again gets into the messenger space,” he says. “Facebook is their mobile strategy. There’s no denying that as everybody continues to get on Facebook, and as the average age of the Facebook user trends older, that something else takes its place on the young end. Don’t forget that so many of the patients that we need to maintain relationships with everyday are older. Them getting on Facebook is a wonderful thing.”