5 Social Media Challenges in Healthcare

Posted by Vincent Bucchare

Jan 9

Social Media Challenges in Healthcare

The healthcare industry has been slow to adapt social media as a way to engage with patients and customers, and for good reason.  The industry is heavily regulated and under a ton of scrutiny, which makes participating in social media challenging for the 5 reasons below.



The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act protects privacy for patients, which are the customers for the healthcare industry.  There can be very heavy fines for releasing PHI (Protected Health Information), and also damage to the company's reputation (see point 4).  Penalties for violating the HIPAA privacy act are as below. 

Civil monetary penalties



1. Covered entity or individual did not know (and by exercising reasonable diligence would not have known) the act was a HIPAA violation.

$100-$50,000 for each violation, up to a maximum of $1.5 million for identical provisions during a calendar year

2. The HIPAA violation had a reasonable cause and was not due to willful neglect.

$1,000-$50,000 for each violation, up to a maximum of $1.5 million for identical provisions during a calendar year

3. The HIPAA violation was due to willful neglect but the violation was corrected within the required time period.

$10,000-$50,000 for each violation, up to a maximum of $1.5 million for identical provisions during a calendar year

4. The HIPAA violation was due to willful neglect and was not corrected.

$50,000 or more for each violation, up to a maximum of $1.5 million for identical provisions during a calendar year

Criminal penalties


Potential jail sentence

Unknowingly or with reasonable cause

Up to one year

Under false pretenses

Up to five years

For personal gain or malicious reasons

Up to ten years

Credit: Indiana University

This can make participating in social media difficult as you have to be careful not to post any PHI.  Patient success stories, for example, will have to go through a de-identification process and countless reviews by HR and HIPAA regulators before being posted, which can make the whole process very costly.

2. Company Policies

Many companies, including healthcare companies, discourage and even sometimes block social media usage on company networks.  The biggest reason for blocking social media is for productivity reasons, but there also other concerns.  Viruses, hackers and other types of breaches are prevalent in the internet today, and there is a lot of fear, especially for healthcare companies.  From January till June of 2016, there were 142 data breaches involving more than 500 records (hipaajournal.com).  A data breach is taken very seriously and can have repercussions for the company.  See The Three R's of a Data Breach for more information.

3. Stress and Time

Healthcare specialists, especially doctors, nurses and others that interact with patients, are very busy.  It's becoming harder and harder to see a doctor under short notice, and from my experience, they are in and out of the patient's room before you can count to 10.  If doctors don't have time to talk with their patients, how can they make time to interact with them on social media?

4. Reputation

Health insurance companies and hospitals have to be very careful about their image.  With the current state of healthcare, there is a lot of scrutiny on how much money they make, given the costs people are paying for procedures.  This means that along with HIPAA regulators and HR (see point 1), all social media interactions will also have to go through a marketer and/or publicist to insure it won't be perceived negatively.  Of course some people say that all publicity is good publicity ...

5. Benefits are Unclear

Healthcare companies may find it difficult to measure a return on investment for inbound marketing. Insurance companies, outside of the Health Exchange, are mostly business to business companies.  Will companies choose their health insurance based on social media?  More than likely they will choose a company based on the best price and coverage options.  Many government plans, such as Medicaid and Medicare, are awarded based on complex evaluations, none of them measuring social media interactions.  In this area, negative reputations or HIPAA violations could hurt the company's chances at getting a contract, where having a big social media presence does nothing to increase those changes.  This may make it difficult for companies, particular insurance companies, to participate in social media.


Given these challenges of using social media, healthcare companies can still be successful with inbound marketing.

1. Blog Generically

When posting a success story, perhaps use the made up names of your buyer personas instead of actual patient names. The trick is still making the story believable and realistic. Of course other topics that are not patient specific can be used. I would recommend setting up a workflow where all social media interactions are approved by a HIPAA compliance officer before going public. This can however be costly, and can delay interaction timing, so the process needs to be as efficient as possible.

2. Update Company Policies and Train Employees

All company policies should be updated with inbound marketing in mind. Social media should not be blocked for employees; other measures should be put into place to insure employees are effective. All employees should be trained in social media behavior to insure they are not breaking any company policies.

IT infrastructure should insure there are no firewall holes and that all antivirus protection is up to date. User's shouldn't have to be afraid of opening emails or going online. All users should again be trained to be on the lookout for phishing scams and other tricks hackers may use to get access to your data.

3,4,5. Hire Full Time Social Media Marketers

As healthcare professionals may not have time to post or interact on social media, healthcare institutions may want to hire full time social media marketers. They can be fully trained in privacy, government and company policies, as well as inbound marketing.  Of course, this takes away one of the huge benefits of inbound marketing, which is interacting directly with customers.  If a patient is interacting with a marketer about a subject and not a doctor or other healthcare professional, they may not feel the connection.

Having a staff to handle social media will greatly limit the chances of incurring a bad reputation.  Any bad press can be handled quickly and efficiently.

This option also comes with a large cost, so there must be a clear process to measure success.  Without this measurement, this may be the first position cut when budgets aren't made for the year.   A tool such as HubSpot can help greatly in this area.  Also, if the company is spending money on traditional marketing, some of those funds could be transferred to inbound marketing as a few dollars in this area can go a lot farther than a few dollars in the traditional space.


Given all of the challenges associated with social media in the healthcare industry, it's easy to understand why they've stayed away.  Government contracts, privacy policies and costs are just some of the roadblocks healthcare companies can experience. That being said, having a social media presence can do wonders for a company. For example, over 1 billion users are active on Facebook (according to Facebook themselves).  To not participate in social media is missing out on reaching billions of people, which is something most companies can't afford to miss.

These challenges can be overcome with just some of the ideas listed here in this blog.  There are much cleverer and smarter people than me out there that can help get your healthcare company more involved in social media, don't wait too long or your competitors will beat you to it.

Topics: social media

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