Social media adoption and utilization is widespread among U.S. hospitals, who are adopting different social media platforms, according to new research.

While the “functional purpose of social media use by hospitals and its opportunity and impact on patients and populations remains largely unknown,”  researchers conclude that the “tremendous reach of these new media and their ability to harness existing networks with established trust relationships suggests they have the potential to become dominant communication channels for healthcare.”

The study of 3,371 hospitals, published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, included all U.S. hospitals reporting complete data to both the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems survey and the American Hospital Association annual survey. The study cohort excluded those operated by the federal government and those not classified as general medical and surgical centers, such as pediatric hospitals, psychiatric hospitals, specialty surgery centers, and long-term acute care hospitals.

Researchers extracted data for each hospital from four of the most popular social media platforms—Facebook, Foursquare, Twitter, and Yelp. Of the 3,371 hospitals identified, the adoption of social media websites varied across platforms, with 99.4 percent having a Facebook, 50.8 percent having a Twitter, 99.4 percent having a Foursquare, and 99.1 percent having a Yelp account. Overall, 50.4 percent of hospitals had accounts on all 4 platforms.

In addition, the study found that few hospitals (1.25 percent) used just one or two types of social media platform. And, according to the study’s results, large, urban, private nonprofit and teaching hospitals had significantly more social media utilization than community hospitals across all four social media platforms.

“Compared to the results of prior studies, our results demonstrate a dramatic growth of social media adoption among hospitals,” state the authors. “In a random sample of U.S. hospitals, 21 percent of hospitals used social media in 2010. At the time, 18 percent of hospitals maintained a Facebook account and 16 percent had a Twitter account. Three years later, our study demonstrates significantly higher percentages of hospitals with social media accounts—more than 90 percent have Facebook, Foursquare, and Yelp accounts, and approximately 40 percent have a Twitter account. In particular, a significantly higher proportion of hospitals in rural locations (93.9 percent) and smaller hospitals (94.4 percent) have a Facebook account compared to the 2010 report.”

According to researchers, Facebook is an interesting social media platform that hospitals may use to increase reputation and attract patients. “With the ability of hospitals to respond to comments made by Facebook users on the hospital’s website, dialogs between hospitals and patients could foster important conversations regarding quality of care that traditional surveys may not have the ability to do,” they argue. “Also, the ability to respond to patients in real time and collect data in real time for not only Facebook but all social media platforms provides the ability for hospitals to potentially assess quality and other metrics faster than traditional survey formats.”

The study’s authors specifically call out Yelp as “an interesting platform for hospitals to gauge patient and public experiences and opinions, which may be helpful when thinking about hospital quality and patient perception.” That’s because Yelp reviews can be collected in real time and hospitals can collect reviews and relate them to quality and quality surveys. In addition, they note that Yelp reviews are related to traditional hospital performance measures, which may also be helpful to find measures that are more important to patients.

“Although it is unknown which platform may best connect hospitals with patients and for what purpose, it is probable that users will continue to interact with hospitals through social media, even with the continual introduction of new social media portals, such as Instagram, Pinterest, and Snapchat,” finds the study. “Particularly for Facebook and Twitter, these accounts may enable hospitals to engage in dialog with patients, share knowledge, and solicit patient opinions.”

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