Social Media Risky but Required for Health Care Delivery

Silas Inman

Social media represents a huge opportunity to improve patient communication and care but comes with a variety of added risks and compliance hurdles that must be addressed.

Social media represents a huge opportunity to improve patient communication and care but comes with a variety of added risks and compliance hurdles that must be addressed, according to a presentation at the HIMSS17 meeting.

Social media can effectively be used for education, communication, and marketing but can also result in HIPAA violations, if not used appropriately. To counter the risks, IT and compliance must be put into place to evaluate and prevent the risks, while also capturing communications for compliance. Additionally, employee policies and training are essential.

"Social media can be used to engage and inform patients in strategic ways to facilitate utilization of specific proven therapies. If can be used to send patients to trusted sources," social media expert Kevin Campbell, MD, from North Carolina Heart and Vascular, said during the presentation. "Social media can be effective in promoting new therapies and allowing patients to participate in treatment plans."

There have been various stages in the evolution of communication between the provider and the patient. Throughout this process of change, there was a need for compliant capture and archiving of the conversations and privacy to ensure HIPAA compliance. These systems were put in place to improve information delivery and response.

Early in the process, communication was primarily conducted over email; however, this has broadened substantially to include social media and a variety of chat clients, such as Slack. These new channels still need to be stored, just like the emails before them, which presents huge data archiving challenges.

These hurdles scared many physicians away from using social media, which is problematic, since most patients turn to social media and the internet for medical information. "Increasingly patients go to the internet for information and come to see their providers armed with information," said Campbell.

In general, more than 75% of patients seek information online after talking to their doctor. Consumers have ranked their trust in various online sources, placing doctors as the most trusted source (61%) followed by hospitals (55%), health insurers (42%), and drug companies (37%).

The most effective social media tools for reaching patients are Twitter, Facebook Live, and blogging, believes Campbell. "It's not how much you talk, it’s what you say and when you say it," he said. "You can have 14 tweets in 2 days and have 14 million impressions. In terms of engagement, there is 6000% more engagement with video."

To stay compliant, the latest research and treatments can be discussed but engagement with patients should not mimic a doctor-patient relationship, Campbell noted. It can also be used to teach more than patients, "We discussed a certain procedure with fellows in Germany very successfully," he noted.

Meaningful use of social media also opens the ability to consult and market skills, knowledge, and abilities for the physician. This can help doctors become nationally known as experts or improve referrals. The key to success is engagement, noted Campbell, which can take place over a conference hashtag, Facebook support pages, blogs, and Twitter chats.

With these new social platforms and strategies there is a wave of new risks, noted Michael Rutty, an expert on Information Archiving for the company Actiance. He stressed keeping HIPAA, regulatory policy, and cybersecurity threats front of mind. This raises the risk and concerns of data breaches, especially since there are now potentially dozens of applications, Rutty noted.

Adding to this, social media updates are now admissible in court, as evidence of a breach. To address this, these social media updates need to be archived and searchable in their original forms, not screen captures, representing a huge data compliance issue. "Unless you have intelligence around all the different data points, it is almost meaningless," warned Rutty.

Despite these added risks and challenges, social media is here to stay. These applications help improve education and awareness, the speakers agreed. Instead, software and new applications are being produced and developed to better mitigate the risks.

As an example, artificial intelligence is being developed to crawl through social media updates to find new side effects and benefits of treatment, noted Campbell. This same type of system could help archive these updates. Overall, the potential is endless, and key stakeholders need to take advantage of the opportunity, he concluded.

For a more in depth discussion on the potiential benefits of social media data mining within the heathcare industry, listen in to HRA's webinar "Advances in Digital Data Mining Create New Opportunities for Research."