Part 2 of a 34-part seriesThe next level of growth for healthcare social media, must come from within the organization and involve all employees in the effort.

The previous post in this series reviewed the first year of healthcare social media and noted the correlation between engaged employees and customer service. I’ve predicted that in the coming year we’ll see progressive organizations extending the use of social tools to their employees; thereby creating a culture of information exchange and online service. Achieving a socially connected employee base at a healthcare provider is not without challenges, although it may be easier than some would suggest.

Action conquers fear

We have no reluctance about hiring someone to register a patient or letting nurses tend to patients. Healthcare providers, as Lee Aase of the Mayo Clinic has quipped, are accustomed to embracing cutting edge advances in medicine but ironically slow to adopt new business practices. And so, it should come as no surprise that many hospital systems balk at the idea of allowing a nurse or registrar represent their brand online. Many concerns can be easily relieved by exposure to social media tools and education about their use.

Compliance and regulatory issues usually top the list of concerns and rightfully so. A well-intentioned caregiver posting a patient’s picture could unwittingly generate serious legal problems for a provider. Similarly, I would not suggest completely dismissing issues relative to branding. Again, a well-intentioned employee could post offensive or misleading information.

But there are also concerns that rest on a much less solid foundation. Here, I’m referring to the red herrings of productivity, viruses (or other technological malfeasance), and inflammatory discourse. I suggest these concerns can be allayed by  what psychologists call exposure therapy.

The tools that organizations are scared to give their employees  can, in fact, be the way to overcome fears – real and imagined. It is time to begin using social media internally, within provider organizations. Doing so will help assuage naysayers and allow organizations to cultivate online ambassadors.

Connecting the dots by connecting employees

Out-of-the-gate it may not make sense to extend Twitter to 5,000 employees. However, a simple forum site, accessible only internally, may be a gentle introduction for both the organization and its employees. Consider augmenting the intranet site with a forum. Make the rules clear and accessible -- no foul language, no insults, and no patient information. This is not a unique idea.

Paul Levy, the widely-read CEO blogger from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston set up forums when facing a difficult financial position last year. He explained that layoffs seemed inevitable, but offered an online, intranet for employees to discuss other options. It worked. Employees collaborated openly and created ways to reduce costs and save jobs. Concerns about inflammatory language proved unfounded, the conversation was civil and professional. Levy is a seasoned leader who knows criticism is often a suggestion in disguise; he’s fearless about letting employees speak freely.

If forums are the first steps, a more feature-rich social platform may follow. Multi-user content management systems like open source Word Press MU or commercial Microsoft SharePoint can be used to build powerful internal social networks. As a colleague puts it: "I can log into Facebook and see what everyone I know is up to in broad strokes, and it only takes minutes a day. Why can't we do that across our organization?"

Imagine logging into an intranet and discovering what’s going on in finance, surgical services, registration, administration, and infection control,-- all from short status updates. Wouldn’t knowing where the company as a team was headed be useful?

These kinds of controlled, internal social efforts also help employees better understand what leadership looks like. Leaders,  coached by those who understand social networks and organizational development, can model leadership by their participation in online communities. Most companies already have online training tools, so including Social Media Communications 101 is an easy drop-in that will lead to an internally connected and engaged workforce.

Next time, a deeper look at the the tools to build an internal social network...