In both cases, the mind can easily drift into anxiety-ridden territory: What if something goes wrong? What if I hear something I didn't want to hear? What if the people operating these instruments are not up to the task?
Based on the relatively small number of hospitals fully committing to social media, it's clear that a great deal of uncertainty remains despite the explosive growth in popularity of the medium over the past few years.
According to the tireless tracking of this space on his personal blog by Ed Bennett, the director web strategy for the University of Maryland Medical System, less than 5% of hospitals (23 out of 540) are reported to have activated the "big four": blogs, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube accounts.
We polled some of those who maintain the Web presence of fully involved organizations and asked them about the challenges, opportunities and reasons for their successes in creating both an extended web presence through social media as well as how they went about crafting their social media policies.
"We are satisfied with all our platforms but found our Facebook page to be where many of our patients, family members/friends of patients and fans of Hopkins have really connected with us," said Wendy Ruenzel, Internet marketing manager for Johns Hopkins Medicine. "Facebook tends to be a more personal platform and gives the patients and fans a place to connect to Hopkins."
In our own experience at Genuine Interactive, we have seen success with Facebook pay off for clients. The web manager for a specific department at our client's hospital learned through its Google Analytics reporting that more traffic was driven to the department's front page from Facebook than from prominent links on the hospital's main home page.
Texas-based Christus Health, meantime, has been on Twitter, YouTube and Facebook since 2008. Yet its CEO's blog has been the biggest success story, according to Abby Lowe, senior communications specialist for Christus Health.
"Luckily, our CEO has long been committed to total transparency and is also a dynamic speaker, so his passion regularly comes across in this medium," Lowe said.
In addition to blogging, the top leadership of many organizations has also been involved in the crafting of their social media policies.
Everyone said that they had to create their own policies. A range of stakeholders was included in the process: executive leadership, IT, marketing, public relations, legal, corporate compliance, HR, web producers, and internet security teams.
"The biggest challenge we faced was dispelling myths of what internal stakeholders had previously thought social media was going to do or what it was really about," said Aaron Hughling, the web and creative editor at Scott & White Hospital in Temple, Texas. "We had an 'educational campaign' internally with presentations outlining exactly what our social media strategy was, what all we were planning, and most importantly, exactly what it was not."
Handling the many layers of social media requires a nuanced approach that differs greatly from the more strict approach a hospital might take with its own web site.
"The major challenge we faced was how to balance the rights of the individual with the rights of the employer," said Jeremy Jensen, an application specialist with the corporate communications department at the Luther Midelfort-Mayo Health System in Eau Claire, Wisc. "Where is the line between a personal opinion made on unpaid time versus a comment made that may damage ... what the organization stands for? Photos, comments, likes, links, personal web pages, blogs -- how much do we monitor these?"
But while launching new products and policies are a major piece of the puzzle, constant review and revisions are a major factor in ensuring their effectiveness.
Mercy Health System of Wisconsin has a "Web 2.0 team" of seven individuals who meet quarterly to discuss strengths, weaknesses, improvements and statistics before reporting the result to the executive leadership.
"It's working beautifully so far because our committee is passionate about their responsibilities¬ ...," said Trish Skram, media/PR specialist at Mercy Health. "Meeting on a quarterly basis allows us to come together as a group and listen, collaborate and help one another. The reports are great to show the effectiveness to us as a committee as well as our executive teams."
As is the case for most initiatives at large institutions, top-level buy-in is key to success. That's something that has been evolving at Sherman Health in Elgin, Ill.
"I think they viewed all of our online/social media initiatives as kind of our 'pet' projects. But, now they realize it's far more important than that, said Josh McColough, marketing communications manager. "Everyone at the hospital is realizing this is less of a 'fringe' group of patients, and more of the norm in terms of how people communicate or interact with businesses now."
The payoff for committing to social media, said Scott & White's Hughling, is worth the effort. "Embracing these tools allows our healthcare system to engage with our audience in a very genuine way. It takes guts for organizations of our size and bigger to get in the social media space. Leadership here trusted us and I think we've done great in proving they made the right decision."