In the confusing aftermath of superstorm Sandy, rumors flew across the Internet. The New York Stock Exchange had flooded. A hospital in Brooklyn was burning. Utility company Consolidated Edison was cutting power to all of Manhattan.
Some of the rumors were spread deliberately, while others—like reports of a fire at Coney Island Hospital—originated from misinterpreted dispatches over a police scanner.
Healthcare social media experts say there's no way to prevent tall tales from circulating around forums like Twitter and Facebook—but the best way to dispel them is to be part of the conversation.
“You can't prevent anyone from saying anything about you on social media, but what you can do is correct it,” said Ed Bennett, a social media expert who manages digital communication for the University of Maryland Medical Center, Baltimore. “The true story is the power of social media to self-correct in almost real-time.”
Many hospitals in Sandy's path used social media outlets to keep employees in the loop, share information about community resources, and even actively recruit blood donations and volunteers.
The New York City Health and Hospitals Corp. (@HHCnyc), which operates Coney Island Hospital as well as Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan, didn't specifically address the fire rumors, but tweeted updates about both evacuation efforts.
NYU Langone Medical Center (@NYULMC), which also made headlines for its dramatic stairway evacuation when backup generators at the Manhattan hospital failed, sent out its first tweet since February 2010 on Oct. 30.
“By 11:00 Tuesday morning, all 300 patients were safely transferred from NYULMC to nearby hospitals,” the hospital tweeted. It also thanked the fire and police departments, the New York City Office of Emergency Management, and its staff and medical students. In response, NYU saw a wave of support, including a spike in new “likes” on Facebook.
Inova Health System, Falls Church, Va., used its blog, at inovanewsroom.org, to provide updates on facility closures, staffing needs and emergency hotlines. As the storm raged in Northern Virginia, the blog was updated as quickly as every half-hour.
As a resource for employees and the media, the blog also helped take some of the pressure off the public relations team. “Very early on, we realized that we can use social media for crisis communications,” said Chris Boyer, director of digital marketing and communications.
He pointed, for instance, to the 2011 earthquake that knocked out all of the system's communication lines except Twitter.
But many medical centers remain wary of social media. “We still have a lot of hospitals behind the curve,” said Reed Smith, a social media consultant to healthcare organizations. “The ones who do it well in a crisis situation do it well on a daily basis.”