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Department: Tech Talk

Using social networking in healthcare

Innocent, Karen MS, RN, ANP-BC, CRNP, CMSRN

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doi: 10.1097/01.CCN.0000384055.86219.53
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How does social networking via Facebook, Twitter, and similar sites fit into nursing and healthcare? If you're interested in actively engaging in social networking or other social media, or your facility is, you must be aware of the benefits and risks of this technology, and how to address the issues that involve employees and patients participating in social networking sites.

Social what?

Traditional media is a one-way communication. Social media is more of a conversation, a two-way exchange of thoughts that values the interaction of the community.1 That community can consist of students, members, customers, employees, or patients. The exchange of communication and dynamic development of content supported by Internet users is referred to as Web 2.0.

Social networking sites such as Facebook let you stay in touch with multiple contacts simultaneously. And because the technology can be accessed by some mobile phones, busy users can integrate social networking into their daily routines. As younger generations enter the workforce, social networking is becoming part of professional life. This doesn't mean healthcare professionals have to abandon traditional forms of communication: Millions of people don't have access to the Internet or computers or lack computer literacy, or choose not to use these technologies.2

As awareness of the benefits and low cost of using social media is increasing, more healthcare systems, professional organizations, and other healthcare-related businesses are using major social networking websites or developing their own social networking sites to meet the needs of their patients, members, or employees.

Some 660 hospitals use social media, according to a list maintained by University of Maryland web developer Edward Bennett. Of those, 308 have You Tube channels, 507 use Twitter, and 458 are on Facebook.3 Most of these hospitals use social networking to inform the community about hospital services. For example, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, N.J., used its Facebook page to announce a demonstration of a surgical robot. Other hospitals list information about health screenings, support groups, and education about new procedures.

Nurse recruiters use social networking on sites such as to help fill vacant positions. Depending on the type of position to be filled, healthcare employers may use social media such as virtual open houses, professional organization websites, or professional networking sites such as LinkedIn to find qualified candidates.

Facilities should take an organized approach to using social networking, and implement policies to protect the health system and community (for example, standards of conduct about posting nudity or profanity, policies against providing medical advice on hospital social networking sites, and rules protecting patient privacy.)4 The organization should consider its goals and the types of consumers it wants to target, and must use the right type of media to send the message.5

Networking nurses

Nurses use social networking to encourage and support their peers, to keep up with nursing and healthcare trends, to seek answers to clinical questions, and to find good jobs. On the popular nursing social networking sites and, discussion threads include new graduates posting about their difficulties finding employment during the recession, and others struggling to survive the first year in a new position.

Nurses also can interact by affiliating themselves with companies or products that interest them. For example, Nursing2010 is on Facebook and Twitter. Editors blogged daily (on the journal's website) about conference highlights from the Nursing2010 Symposium in April. Facebook fans and Twitter followers receive the latest information and news about the company's products or special offers. The social networking connection encourages product loyalty and helps drive regular traffic to the website when fans and followers refer friends and colleagues. Fans and followers also provide valuable reviews and feedback to further improve the products.

Of course, many nurses use social networking solely for personal reasons, including connecting with former and current classmates and interacting with friends. Some nurses have faced disciplinary action at work or been fired for demonstrating unprofessional or inappropriate behaviors on their social networking sites, or discussing patients. (See Common sense online.) As a result, some organizations have implemented policies on the use of social networking websites and communicated the policy to their employees. For example, Mayo Clinic requires employees to use the first person when blogging, and to be clear that employees are expressing their own views, not the facility's views. Employees also can't use Mayo Clinic e-mail addresses or phone numbers on personal social networking profiles.6

Nursing organizations get virtual

Nursing organizations have used many networking technologies, from group e-mail distribution to forums and chat rooms. Now nursing organizations are updating their website technology with functionality similar to major social networking sites or are joining social networking sites. Members who don't have local chapters can interact with others with similar interests by having virtual chapters and holding virtual meetings. A useful feature of some social networking sites is the ability for nurses who are geographically distant to collaborate on projects and share electronic documents. Multiple users can simultaneously make additions or revisions to a single document residing on the organization or vendor's server. Similarly, colleagues who are writing an article or developing a policy can divide the work and continually update one document, for example, through EtherPad, Google Docs, ThinkFree, and Zoho.7

Your profile on a social or professional networking site, listing your education, certification, work experience, and speaking experience, can be a valuable tool. As a professional development educator, I'm always looking for experts in various specialties, so searching profiles is an efficient way to identify qualified conference speakers and subject matter experts. Recruiters also can use these profiles to find nurses to fill positions, so providing a detailed profile can be beneficial even if you're not actively seeking a new position.

Pixel power

Healthcare is still early in its adoption of social networking, but as consumers and providers become more familiar with the technology, regular interactions should improve the provider-patient relationship and help to improve services. Similarly, nurses and other healthcare professionals using social networking will benefit from exchanging information and collaboration with colleagues.

Common sense online

Follow these general guidelines for social networking:

  • Keep your professional and personal networks separate.8
  • Use secure professional websites for sharing information with other healthcare professionals.8
  • Don't accept or invite patients as friends on social networking sites.
  • Check the privacy settings for your account on the social networking site, and only let friends access your profile, photos, and discussions.
  • Remember that information posted online is permanent, and can't be deleted once it's downloaded or shared


1. Bennett E. Social media talking points .
2. Nambisan P, Nambisan S. Models for consumer value co-creation in health care. Health Care Manage Rev. 2009;34(4):344–354.
3. Bennett E. Hospital Social Network List .
4. Cleveland Clinic social media policy .
5. Burke C. How can nurse leaders utilize Web 2.0? AONE Voice of Nursing Leadership, 2009:3–6.
6. Mayo Clinic. For Mayo Clinic employees .
7. Carta D. 5 ways to collaborate on documents in real time .
8. Crawford LS. Doctors, patients, and social networks .
© 2010 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.