Welcome to Inova Health, Chris Boyer.

Just days after starting his job in April 2010 as director of digital communications and marketing at the delivery system, Boyer was startled to get the news that a baby had been stolen from one of Falls Church, Va. -based Inova's maternity wards.

Well, no. What really happened was that a hospital visitor overheard hospital personnel running a test-called a Code Pink-of a security system designed to prevent the crime. Thanks to the power of social media, the visitor was able to Tweet that a baby had gone missing and share the news with the wider online community.

Boyer was using a social media monitoring service and spotted the Tweet within minutes of its posting. He immediately called the hospital to confirm all the babies were still there, and just as quickly responded on Twitter with the facts. He won kudos from Inova's CEO for his prompt response, but even so, there's no telling if any damage was done to the six-hospital health system's reputation.

That walk on the wild side has not dampened Boyer's enthusiasm for Twitter and its multiple social media brethren, such as Facebook, YouTube, and LinkedIn-all ostensibly designed to facilitate communication, foster community and provide a new social paradigm. Inova is broadcasting on more than 30 social media channels, with multiple sites on Facebook, Twitter, and others.

Numerous physicians, hospitals and other health care players are trying to broaden their marketing and communications horizons by jumping on social media channels. Some see it as an ideal way to engage their patients and monitor public sentiment, and create a highly visible forum for their leaders to promote their services to local markets and beyond.

Those are the rewards if you can keep the genie in the bottle, but many organizations have had profound struggles doing so. Put aside the fear of flagrant, almost unthinkable, disclosures by clinicians (and they happen, see sidebar, page 28) and consider concerns about productivity issues wrought by excessive staff time spent on social media sites, and the blurring of professional roles with patients-who suddenly have become "friends" online.

In addition, know that once a public forum is established, feedback will not always be positive-or accurate, as Boyer learned. A basic example: If a patient is publicly naming names and complaining via social media about their care a hospital faces limits on what it can say in response. So while social media outlets can break down communication barriers and be extremely useful tools for community engagement, there's no controlling the medium nor the message.

Gary Baldwin's cover story in Health Data Management's September issue explores whether social media is a friend or foe of hospitals. A slideshow of leading social media voices in the health information technology industry is available here.


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