10.4185/RLCS-2016-1140en | ISSN 1138 - 5820 | RLCS # 71 | 2016 | |
Influence factors on the success of hospital communication via social networks
1. Introduction and theoretical framework
Research activity in the field of health is becoming more and more intense and diverse. "Information about health in contemporary society is included in social policies and (...) can provide important benefits to the wellbeing of a society” (Peñafiel & Echegaray, 2014, p. 6).
Similarly, there is a varied body of literature about institutional social networks in different professional fields (Gómez & Paniagua, 2014; Huertas & Mariné, 2014; Palomo, 2014; Campos Freire, Rivera Rogel & Rodríguez Hidalgo, 2014; Campos Freire & Ruas Araujo, 2016).
Nonetheless, when it comes to healthcare institutions, in particular hospitals, the object of study for this article, and their communicative activity via social networks, scientific publications are far from copious.
A study by Rando (2014) of hospitals in Andalusia, both publicly and privately funded, emphasises a lack of coherence between the objectives approved by hospital directors once the transmission of messages via social networks to the various stakeholders had been decided on and started, and the results obtained with this communicative activity.
There is clearly a gap between a hospital’s reasons for participating in a social network (Rando, 2014): to invite dialogue, interaction or participation by society in the virtual space; to learn about citizens’ healthcare needs; to put itself on the map and strengthen links with the population; to make its identity better known and improve its quality of life; among other aspects, and the consequences of this action. In this way, fundamental characteristics of social networks (Cervera, 2008), such as a virtual space for conversation, interactive exchange of knowledge, experiences and dialogue, among others, is not be reflected today in a generalised way in the sector of healthcare communication in the hospitals in the autonomous community of Andalusia, for example.
Several studies stress the potentiality of hospital social networks and the benefits for society; highlighting the fact that the new scenario represents “a growing space for interpersonal interaction” (Shepherd, Sanders & Doyle, 2015, p. 408), “a virtual community where they [citizens] can find encouragement, get answers to specific health-related questions, and a place to share their success stories” (De la Pena & Quintanilla, 2015, p. 495), as well as a tool with great potential for online initiatives that require promotion (Koteyko, Hunt & Gunter, 2015).
De la Pena & Quintanilla (2015, p. 495) assert that “the quest for health and well-being can be easily embraced with the aid of digital media to reach millions of people who share similar goals and seek answers to their health-related concerns.”
A study of organisations of patients with rare or uncommon diseases, and their activity on social networks, by Castillo, López & Carretón (2015, p. 679) considers these networks to be a “source of knowledge” whose “active and collaborative attitude influences developments in medical research”.
In the same vein, but concerning patients in palliative care, and the use of Twitter in particular, other authors (Nwosu, Debattista & Rooney, 2015) express that this social network presents a novel opportunity for participation and ongoing dialogue with the different social groups. Nonetheless, in the last three appraisals, the information disregards the interaction between the institution and the citizen, choosing to focus on the already extensively developed relationship between individuals who share the same life situation.
In their analysis of the use of social networks in the prevention and treatment of HIV, Taggart, Grewe, Conserve, Gliwa & Roman (2015) also consider Twitter to be beneficial, in that it improves the ability to access and share information, among other aspects. Nonetheless, these authors stress that there are certain disadvantages, such as technological barriers, lack of physical interaction and privacy, and cost.
The use of Twitter by hospitals is also analysed from an economic point of view, since, as Gomes & Coustasse (2015) point out, communication via this social network means “savings of resources”; an opportunity to cut costs by eliminating unnecessary visits to the doctor, for example. In the same vein, Blázquez, Cantarero & Pascual (2015) and Richter, Muhlestein & Wilks (2014) state, in the case of Facebook, that hospital directors believe that there is a considerable opportunity for the participation of consumers at a low cost.
Nonetheless, as well as the scientific literature that highlights the benefits of healthcare communication via social networks, there are other publications, albeit fewer, that see signs of harmful effects, or potential dangers. These include the loss of privacy or security when sharing information (Mattingly & Joseph, 2015), and the lack of specialised training, both in health and the use of social networks, of professionals that work in the field of hospital communication (Rando, 2014). With regard to the first deficiency, Peñafiel, Camacho, Aiestaran, Ronco & Echegaray (2014, p. 135) highlight, in one of their studies on the dissemination of healthcare information, that there is a lack of “educational perspective; professional specialisation is required and doctors and journalists must strengthen a better relation by minimising the differences which separate them”.
In addition, as a study about corporate communication alluding to aspects of social responsibility by Ros & Castelló (2011, p.47) indicates, despite the “possibilities for interaction and dialogue that these spaces offer, social media are still rarely used as channels for the communication of responsibility”, and used instead for purely business and advertising messages.
In any case, and independent of the positive or negative aspects analysed, it is hard to find studies that attempt to analyse, in a scientific way, the losses or gains in patient and family quality of life and wellbeing by using social networks as a communication channel between the hospital and the citizen. This is despite the fact, as mentioned earlier, that this is one of the effects that is assumed to have the greatest impacts on citizens.
Yet for an effect of such importance for citizens to occur, the meeting between society and healthcare entities must not only be real, but also productive. According to the state of hospital communication on social networks, the Internet has become a vehicle that allows, with the passing of time, more diversified communication actions focussed on health, even though citizen participation in health-related matters via the web is relatively low (Prestin, Vieux, Sana & Wen-ying, 2015).
In the American context, Jha, Lin & Savoia (2016) establish the lack of connection between the content made available on social networks like Facebook in the health departments of the United States of America, and the health conditions affecting the population. This interesting reflection lies in the lack of funding and human resources fundamentally, which the authors find in these American healthcare entities.
Concurrently to the profusion of healthcare social networks, there are still some corporations that have decided to avoid social media, or to feel their way into the territory (Oviedo, 2013), with direct communication in social networks between doctors and patients being more normal than between healthcare institutions and patients.
But regardless of whether it is hospitals or healthcare professionals that communicate with society, there are socio-economic and demographic variables that have contributed to noticeable differences in the use of social networks, fundamentally based on accessibility to information (Yang & Wenjing, 2014), socio-economic level (Delgado, Gazzotti & Santoro, 2015) and age (Prybutok & Ryan, 2015, & Suit, Winkler & Campbell, 2015).
In addition, the life experience of the individual who accesses the information about health via the social networks is yet another significant variable, since those suffering from an illness, and their close family and friends, are more likely to participate in healthcare networks (Yang & Wenjing, 2014).
However, despite the fact that patients and their families show more interest in hospital social networks, whether or not participation in these networks is a useful tool to improve a pathological state is questionable. Urrutia-Pereira, Avila & Cherrez-Ojeda (2015, p. 25) expound on this matter in a study on the supervision of children with asthma by their parents. These people valued the specialised program that uses social media during the treatment of asthma, even though “few use it to control their children's disease”.
Campisi, Folan & Diehl (2015) argue that it is unclear how to participate in social networks in order to be able to influence the quality of life of individuals, since these individuals differ in their experiences, motivations, and amount of time using the networks.
With the goal of getting a better idea of the keys to improving the communicative relationship between hospitals and citizens through social networks, the focal point of the study will be the specialised health centres, at national level, with greater degrees of interactivity, being as they are considered more influential. By analysing their activity in social networks, we obtain a list of shared actions, as indicators of activity in social media that stimulates citizen participation.
The Klout Score is different from other indexes, which only show the volume of content generated in social networks or the number of followers, for example. The reliability of the Klout Score index lies in the fact that it is the result of cross-referencing the aforementioned data, obtained from the seven foremost social networks in Spanish society, with other types of information, for example, whether the content shared has given rise to any type of interaction between the one who posted the message and the reader (a response, conversation, copying the message, assessing it, etc.).
In Klout’s ranking by activities, the ‘Health Centres and Health’ categories are placed immediately before a cooking programme broadcast by the Spanish public television network TVE 1, MasterChef, and twelve points below Gran Hermano (Big Brother), a reality show broadcast in Spain by the private network Tele 5. According to the list, Gran Hermano, classified as a category, generates more influence among Internet users with an interest in social networks than health centres or health do, in general.
Delimiting the object of study and performing the search on the Klout Score for ‘Hospital’, we find a ranking of the 19 hospital centres on national territory with the highest values for influence. However, there is an obvious difference between the centres that occupy the first eight places, with a score of over 50, and the rest, with a lower score.
To complete the study of the interactivity of these hospitals with citizens on social networks, we have used Twitter’s measuring tool, Twitonomy (April 2016). This tool has been used to perform a quantitative analysis of the Twitter accounts of the 19 Spanish hospitals and hospital groups selected.
This study is supplemented with a scheme of qualitative analysis based on research studies like the one carried out by Paniagua & Gómez, 2014, in which they study the content shared by organisations, in this case Spanish universities, on Twitter. In this way, the most retweeted tweets and the favourites selected by users of this social network are examined, in each of the hospital centres.
In total 190 tweets were selected. These were classified according to an in-house categorisation, based on the aforementioned study, with the goal of obtaining information about the content that the most influential hospitals draw on in their communication with society.
Among the hospital centres that appear in topinfluencers.net as those that generate the most activity amongst citizens, the Hospital Clínic de Barcelona stands out, with a score of 61 (60.61) and 13,500 followers. Going by geographical areas, Valencia has five hospitals in the ranking and Barcelona has four. In the Andalusian provinces of Málaga, Cádiz and Almería we can find five of the centres in the ranking, while Alicante, Albacete, Murcia and León provide one hospital each. As for centres that are accountable to national hospital groups, Hospital Quirón and Hospitales Nisa also appear on the list, with units located in various locations around Spain. [Graph 1 and Table 1]
Conspicuously absent from the list of the most influential Spanish hospitals, in the case of Andalusia, is the Hospital Infanta Margarita in Córdoba, accountable to the Andalusian Health Service. In 2015 this was the hospital centre with the greatest presence on social networks, according to data published by the Observatorio Permanente de Tecnología de la Información y Comunicación, or Permanent Observatory of Information and Communications Technology in Healthcare (ObservaTICS). This is a clear example of the difference between an abundance of communicative activity on behalf of a hospital on social networks, and the reaction of citizens to this.
Of the hospitals that are classified as the most influential in Spain on the social networks, eleven receive public funding and eight are managed by private entities.
Table 1. Source www. topinfluencers.net. (23 April 2016)
Our analysis will focus on the social network Twitter, since this is one of the networks that hospital corporations use the most, as well as Facebook. Authors such as Nwosu, Debattista & Rooney (2015) find Twitter a novel opportunity for ongoing participation and dialogue with the different social groups. This does not necessarily mean that true interaction between the institution and the citizen takes place.
Twitter is also highlighted by Taggart, Grewe, Conserve, Gliwa & Roman (2015), who consider that it enables greater access to information, and a greater ability to share information in comparison with other social networks.
The use of Twitter by hospitals is also analysed from a more functional point of view, since, as Gomes & Coustasse (2015, p. 203) point out, communication via this social network means “savings of resources”; an opportunity to cut costs by eliminating unnecessary visits to the doctor, for example.
Using the Twitonomy measuring tool, we have analysed the communicative activity of the most influential hospitals in Spain via this social network; their level of presence, and the level of interactivity that they exhibited, among other aspects.
Table 2 shows data obtained from a quantitative analysis of the Twitter accounts of a hospital or hospital group. The average number of tweets per day of the most influential Spanish hospitals, one of the indicators of their activity on this channel, is 2.52. Two of the three least active hospital centres on Twitter, with less than one tweet a day are Hospital de Jerez and Hospital Almansa, in the last two positions of the list. It can therefore be assumed that they exhibit less interactivity. Nonetheless, Hospital del Mar, which also posts less than one Tweet per day on average (0.73), achieves a greater response from citizens to its messages, and ranks in the middle of the list.
Table 2. Source: www.twitonomy.com. In-house production 21, 22 & 23 April 2016. (+) / (-) approximation of the figures to the number immediately above or below
In the same vein, another detail worth highlighting is that in all the hospitals, except Hospital Puerto Real, less than half the Tweets posted by the hospital obtain a response of any kind from citizens. In this Cádiz hospital, around 52% of its Twitter posts are retweeted.
These first results indicate that, although for communication to exist the hospital must post messages, posting a larger number of Tweets does not necessarily result in increased interaction. A higher number of messages does not correspond to a visibly greater response on behalf of the readers.
The Tweets posted by the hospital that are retweeted provide a score for citizen participation in Twitter, as well as the Tweets marked as favourites. At the same time, with a higher score for Retweets or favourites, one can improve one's reputation as a source of valid information.
It is for this reason that the figures for Tweets/day have been cross referenced with the figures for Tweets posted by the hospital, and those that are marked as favourites. In this way, we obtain information about the effectiveness of hospital communication [table 3], which causes a change in the order established in the initial classification performed by topinfluencers.net (the web page that analyses, together with Twitter, the activity of other social networks).
With regard to in-house production by hospitals, a good part of the messages posted by the hospital are copies of Tweets from other sources: 28.42% on average. When it comes to the hospitals’ Retweet scores, the activity of Hospitals La Vega and La Fe stands out. Over half the messages posted by these centres (62% and 58%, respectively) are produced by other sources.
This detail indicates that being the origin of the messages is not a necessary condition to cause society to participate more with the hospital institution on Twitter, and neither are the Tweets in which the hospital responds to its users. In table 3 we can highlight the Hospital Universitario Puerta del Mar de Cádiz, where half the Tweets are answers to messages posted by citizens. Even though the interest demonstrated by the hospital should encourage dialogue with its stakeholders, in reality the answers do not cause this hospital to stand out from the crowd in terms of interaction with citizens .
Table 3. In-house source and production.
With respect to the origin of the Tweets that are retweeted or marked as favourites by the hospital, we must point out a kind of feedback exhibited by the hospital institutions analysed, in general. If we observe their Twitter accounts, the hospitals appear in the top positions of the accounts most mentioned in their own messages; most retweeted; and with the greatest number of favourites. Particularly in public hospitals, and in addition to the centre itself, other accounts of centres accountable to the public healthcare administration appear as the most mentioned, retweeted, and marked as favourites.
This characteristic leads us to think that, in parallel with the conversation that a hospital institution can have with citizens, it establishes a monologue with itself, which can sometimes be difficult to distinguish from the first conversation.
If we consider the typology of the content posted on social networks, according to the scheme of analysis applied to the Tweets analysed [table 4], in qualitative terms the messages have been divided into nine different categories:
From the content analysis, we can infer that the majority of Spanish hospitals in the study, and that are known to have an influence among Twitter users, -except for Hospital Puerto Real- talk about themselves (94.74% of the centres post Tweets that make reference to this type of content). Information about the hospital; the activities the centre organises; its professionals or the institution it belongs to, whether public or private, in the case of hospital groups, is the content that appears most frequently on Twitter. In the case of the Hospital de Poniente, there are no messages of any other type posted on this channel.
Table 4. Source: www.twitonomy.com. In-house production 21, 22 & 23 April 2016.
Non-health-related information is another of the types of content that these centres post most frequently (78.45%). In general, the messages included in this category provide social content, making citizens feel closer to the community they belong to. The hospital serves as a link.
The next categories in the order of mentions in Twitter messages are health promotion content, and the category where the work of health centre staff or users is recognised, or gratitude is shown for an activity offered (with 68.42% each).
Over half the hospitals also post a considerable number of messages about health in general (52.63%) and the percentage of hospitals that speak about their activity on other digital communication channels, such as social networks and web pages, is far from negligible (36.89%).
Information related to sales (accounting for 10,53%), service to citizens in relation with the hospital (5.26%) and responses to a conversation or message posted (5.26%) are the categories that generate the lowest number of messages in the analysis performed.
Graph 2. Source: www.twitonomy.com. In-house production 21, 22 & 23 April 2016.
The group does not add up to 100% of the messages posted, since it is not uncommon for some Tweets to be classified in different categories.
Among other characteristics the messages have in common, we can highlight the greater dissemination of Tweets from Monday to Friday. We find hardly any messages posted by the hospitals on Saturdays and Sundays, despite the fact that the specialised healthcare they provide does not stop at weekends, and that these could be the days when members of hospital interest groups are most active in social media. Having obtained a higher score for citizen participation on social networks does not mean that if hospitals plan messages for the weekends the relationship with citizens will not become even closer.
In addition, the use in Twitter of tags, links, or references to other user accounts on this social network is widespread, which encourages dialogue with other Internet users.
The tone used with the reader is warm, friendly, and on many occasions, very intimate, making use of casual and affectionate expressions, in particular when addressing certain segments of the population, such as mothers or child oncology patients, for example. There are many direct references to the users in the accounts we analysed, even asking for their opinion on the release of a new web page.
On prominent days of the year, such as Christmas, weekends, and other public holidays, as well as normal weekdays, the messages greet citizens cheerfully, wishing them well. In this sense, the results are in tune with the suggestions of José Luis Orihuela, who recommends adopting a “conversational style” when managing corporate Twitter accounts (2011, p. 82 & 83).
We found no messages related to managing a crisis, but a Tweet from Hospital La Fe does stand out. This Tweet apologises for something that the centre is not directly responsible for; the trouble nearby construction work could cause patients and their families.
The messages, in general, are short, concise and complete. Twitter’s 140-character limit does not give the reader any sense of the message being unfinished.
Hospitals located in regions where two official languages are spoken provide content both in Spanish, and the second language used by the local residents. They do not translate the same message or repeat the same content in both languages. Instead, certain content is posted in Spanish and other content in the second official language, with much the same media impact.
The private character of some centres validates their posting certain content, such as questioning the use of generic medicines, something that would be unthinkable in publicly funded centres. Another difference we found between public and private centres is that private health centres make direct reference, using their full names, to famous people who have been patients in these centres (births, sports injuries, medical check-ups, etc.).
From the analysis of communication by the most influential Spanish hospitals via social networks, in general and in particular on Twitter, we can deduce common factors of activity in these health centres. The successes in communicative activity via social media of some hospitals, reflected in greater interaction with citizens, could be extrapolated to other hospital centres whose presence on social networks has little apparent impact on society.
We are aware that there are no formulas that can be prescribed in a similar way for all health centres, due to their heterogeneity. We do, however, find shared characteristics that should be taken into account in order to achieve greater citizen participation in hospital social networks and, thus strengthen relations between both parties. A closer relationship between patients and their families, and the healthcare institution would lead to improvements in attention to the public due to a greater mutual understanding, and, with this, an improvement in citizen quality of life and wellbeing.
From the results obtained in the study, the first conclusion we can draw is that citizen participation in the Twitter accounts of hospital institutions is low. In any case, once the citizen-hospital communicative relationship is established, the citizen will be interested, in the main, in the messages in which the centre disseminates information about its activity, the events it organises, the actions performed by its professionals, or improvements to its structure, for example.
In addition to getting to know the hospital, citizens want to know how to improve their health, which is the reason why Tweets that have a social impact on prevention and health promotion stand out. Another type of information that is not about health, but related with the immediate surroundings, also generates a reaction in citizens who communicate with the hospital.
The typology of content referred to, together with other types of messages that arouse less interest among Twitter users, is what needs to be taken into account and looked after to strengthen the institutional relationship being discussed.
The low percentage of responses or conversation-type messages does not mean that this type of content should not be worked on, with the goal of building public loyalty. Nonetheless, we did not find evidence of this activity in the hospitals that were the most influential on social networks.
In an influential hospital, the citizen and the healthcare institution speak to each other as equals. The tone used by the health centres studied is intimate and, in many cases, casual; the content is correct, clear and not always of relevant scientific or social interest.
The health centre involves its readers in its activity and speaks their language, which means that messages are sometimes posted in one or two languages, depending on the autonomous community the hospital serves.
The origin of the Tweets, whether produced in-house, retweeted, or from an external source, does not determine a greater a lesser response from the readers. However, it is obvious that the hospital must maintain constant activity if it wishes to sustain social dialogue.
The noticeable decline of the hospitals’ activity on social media during the weekends is a sign of a lack of media planning to post on Saturdays and Sundays. It would be of interest to analyse a change in this trend and for hospitals to post messages on these days to see how Internet users react.
This study, guided by others that take a close look at issues that improve message production on hospital social networks, hopes to offer a solid casuistry of actions to enrich corporate communication of hospitals.
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How to cite this article in bibliographies / References
D Rando Cueto, FJ Paniagua Rojano, C de las Heras Pedrosa (2016): “Influence factors on the success of hospital communication via social networks”. Revista Latina de Comunicación Social, 71, pp. 1.170 to 1.186.
Article received on 20 July 2016. Accepted on 4 November.