Providers need to embrace social media for patient engagement

Consumers’ online opinions increasingly drive care decisions, says Geeta Nayyar.

If physicians want to reach today’s consumers, they need to leverage social media to target women who are making the healthcare decisions for their families and households.

That’s the contention of Geeta Nayyar, MD, chief healthcare and innovation officer at Femwell Group Health, one of the largest management services organizations in Florida.

“Fifty-nine percent of women are making healthcare decisions for others in the United States, and that number shoots up to 94 percent among working moms with kids under 18,” said Nayyar, a practicing physician and mother who was one of the keynote speakers at WEDI’s 25th Annual National Conference in Salt Lake City. Mothers who are 25 to 45 years old are the ones who are hiring and firing doctors, and using social networking to post online testimonials—both positive and negative, which can make or break physicians’ reputations.

“I have a four year old. If my pediatrician pisses me off, we’re out the door,” said Nayyar. “We, as moms, know what we’re talking about. We have a high level of service that we demand, and we are going to shop around, especially when it comes to our families.”

Yet, women are not just influencing entire social networks—online and offline—regarding care for their households. Nayyar warns that their provider recommendations also extend to circles of female friends and acquaintances. “Every Facebook update, every online community post and every Tweet has the potential to change minds and behaviors,” she said.

Tweets, in particular, are now a useful alternative to Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems (HCAHPS) scores, which are based on surveys of patients’ perspectives of hospital care, according to Nayyar. However, as she points out, only 6 percent of consumers have heard of HCAHPS or even know where to find the website. “And, when you look at the information that HCAHPS collects, there are actually more categories covered by Twitter than there are in the national, standardized survey.”

In addition, Nayyar argues that other demographics are affecting the industry. Baby Boomers, she contends, represent the “silver tsunami” in healthcare as a growing population of seniors who are changing the way consumers select physicians and discern the marketplace.

“They question everything and they search for everything,” she observes. “They are looking for healthcare solutions, not just from their doctors. They are out there scavenging the Internet and talking to their friends and peers, because they are not quite sure that their doctors got it right.”

She contends that Generation X, those between 30 and 45 years of age, is the “first true” generation of healthcare consumers. While they are relatively young and healthy now, and have yet to create a high demand for care services, this population is different from Baby Boomers in that they tend to shop online for healthcare the way that they shop for retail services.

“They respond to TV advertising, but they very much consult online information and peer reviews when it comes to healthcare decision making,” she said, noting that those in the Gen X generation are not tied to a specific brand. “This group has short-term expectations when it comes to choosing their providers and will swap doctors based on their latest experience.”

Millenials or Generation Y, in the 20 to 30 age range, are the future of healthcare, according to Nayyar. “They may not be the biggest cost drivers in the health system today, but they are 100 percent of the healthcare consumer of tomorrow.” These discriminating buyers grew up on the Internet and are a different breed of consumers that put a premium on transparency and are seeking health information from multiple sources online, most importantly through their social networks. “This younger group values personal relationships with their physicians but are likely to switch their doctors or hospitals if they have any kind of negative experience.”

Whether physicians like it or not, Nayyar concludes that consumers of all ages—including those who are older than age 65 and are less tech-savvy—are looking for information online about providers, such as experiences and reviews from their patients. The good news, she says, is that 54 percent of doctors use social media for professional purposes. “It promotes a conversation that they can’t otherwise have. This is the wave of the future and it’s not going away.”

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