I had the privilege recently of being asked to write a short reflection on the use of social media in healthcare. I suggested many of us are moving from our freshman year - getting familiar with campus, determining which is the cooler spot to hang out at, facebook or twitter... you get the idea - towards our sophomore and junior years. For many providers, this year is about figuring out what to do next. What will actually bring value and make using social media in healthcare, well, meaningful. What are the meaningful use guidelines for #HCSM? In late 2010, the federal government released a much anticipated set of guidelines around how healthcare providers should use electronic medical records. The guidelines, know as Meaningful Use, specifically spell out what features an EMR must contain and how doctors must use those features in order to qualify for federal stimulus dollars. For instance, the guidelines suggest providers council every smoker on smoking cessation. The software must be able to prompt doctors when someone has identified as a smoker and it must be able to capture that the physician has spoken to them about quitting.

Meaningful Use says it is not enough to simply have an electronic record. Meaningful Use says the EMR's feature set and how it is put into practice determine the impact it has on care. Today, we can say the same thing about social media in healthcare. With heartfelt thanks to the pioneers who fought the HIPAA and ROI battles, it is no longer enough to simply have a facebook page or twitter account. There are expectations around engagement, user experience, quality and value which users have come to expect through interactions with other individuals and organizations.

The good news is that there is no single correct way to use social media and digital communications as a provider. There are, however, a few basic ideas which I boldly offer as guidelines for using social media as a healthcare provider:

  • Be available - Phil Baumann said it well. You do not need to be famous online, you just need to be available. In fact, the rest breaks down if when this guideline is not followed. It has been said many times by many people, social media is less about pushing and more about pulling. If you are not open to conversations with the public, patients, other providers, etc then social media may not be for you.  As guidelines go, this one may be the most significant for meaningfully using social media. Being available is more than just replying to tweets. Availability means knowing who within the organization can answer the question authoritatively; It means having a team of on call experts. I know at least one healthcare thought leader who envisions call centers giving way to tweeting centers. Have the capacity and expertese to follow up with your tweets, comments and facebook wall.
  • Bring Value - There is an easy litmus test for this one. Think: "why would I follow or fan a company?" Most people get enough spam email and junk mail. Can you honestly say you would want to get the message you are pushing out if you didn't work for the provider pushing it out? If not, then it is probably spam. So what kinds of things bring value? Think about curation, sharing expertise, answering questions, helping someone find what they are looking for. Here is a simple way to bring value: go to search.twitter.com and select advanced search. For the search string, enter something like "doctor" and then put your zip code in the location field. Chances are someone in your area is looking for a good doctor. Reply and offer to set them up with a same day appointment. Now that's value! Another example includes hosting diagnosis specific communities and wikis with clinician participation. Imagine an online community of folks who have been and are about to go through an orthopedic joint replacement. What kind of value would they get from connecting with each other and sharing experiences in a forum moderated by a clinical expert?
  • Liberate your expertise - Most physicians go through at least 4 years of medical school and post graduate education. Many pursue fellowships and residencies. There is a significant amount of intellect and scholarship trapped in those brains of theirs. Here is the problem, until there is something wrong with me, I have no way of tapping into that knowledge. We often mistake holding onto our ideas and knowledge as power. The reality is the opposite. Those who are willing to share their expertise often find the rewards to be considerable. If you are a physician, you are a trusted expert in your field (the same can be said of provider organizations). Your use of social media must consist of sharing that expertise. Provide your opinion on the health news of the day. People would much rather get that expertise from someone local and trusted than an etherial disembodied name on the byline of a major news paper. Here are two great examples: Dr. Howard Luks and Piedmont's HealthWatchMD site.
  • Be collaborative - engage publicly with other physicians and experts (and can't patients be experts in their own conditions?). If you are an expert individually, and there is indeed benefit to liberating that expertise, imagine what happens when you team up with other experts? In medicine there is the concept of grand rounds - opportunities for physicians to present complex cases as learning experiences to other providers. Today's social tools are perfect platforms for grand rounds. The more providers are willing to interact and share, the more we all benefit. This collective knowledge becomes searchable, accessible by anyone - patient or provider - who wants to learn more about a condition or treatment. Dr. Gayle Smith does a fantastic job of collaborating with patients and colleagues.
  • Be Innovative - Innovations come in many forms; not everyone has to be the next iPod. Think about how social and digital tools are being used outside of healthcare. What applications might they have in improving health and patient experience? Over 500 million people are using facebook. According to their statistics, 250 million access the site from a mobile platform and mobile users access the site at least two times a day. What does that tell us about the role mobile platforms play in what has become the most significant communication tool of our age? Do you have a way to interact with patients via a mobile device? What about text messaging? There is an innovation which is easy to adopt. Solve problems, don't get hung up on them.

There you have it. How is that for a start? As we start to go beyond simply being online it is time to think about how to have an impact in what we are doing. What other guidelines would you propose? What about from a patient's perspective, what makes social media meaningful?