When patients want to talk about a disease or a treatment, they often huddle on a message board to swap information on the windy expanses of the
Last month NorthShore University HealthSystem invited the conversations in from the cold.
The four-hospital network, based in the suburbs of Chicago, is helping its 140,000 patients to create forums and ask one another where to find an
ob/gyn, how to sustain a diet or which techniques help in enduring that internal punching-bag condition known as pregnancy.
NorthShore was recently named among Thomson Reuter's list of the industry's top 10 hospital groups, and Ragan.com is examining the
Internet communications strategies of these institutions.
In Evanston, Ill., where the 2,000-doctor NorthShore is based, the tools for spreading its voice range from the usual array of Web and social media
presences to newer platforms like Sharecare, which enables people to pose questions to health care experts.
Then there is NorthShoreConnect, which has evolved from a patient records portal to an interactive message platform. Using Epic, a medical records software from a company based in Madison, Wis., patients can discuss cancer, fibromyalgia,
spinal surgery and, potentially, any other health issue they might wish to crowd-source.
Most decisions in health care are related to referrals by friends, family or acquaintances, says Teddy Fishbein, NorthShore's manager of interactive
"We wanted to find an area where patients could share information with each other," he says. "So instead of a two-way relationship between patients and
providers, we wanted it to be a patient-to-patient ... network."
Launching patient forums
NorthShoreConnect was launched after the hospital network, which serves as the principal teaching affiliate of the University of Chicago's Pritzker
School of Medicine, did a major redesign of its website based on analytics and market research. It found the most-used areas of its website were those
relating to finding a doctor or a location, information about clinical services, online payment of bills and the medical records portal.
This enables patients to view lab results and schedule directly into their physicians' calendars. And patients can directly message their doctors or
Adding online forums required serious thought as NorthShore wrestled with potential liability. What if patients snarked at medical staff, gave wrong
advice or chose the occasion to tout Chinese snake wine as a cure for neurological disorders?
The conclusion was the same one the hospital reached in its active Facebook site: People were going to be talking about it anyway online, so why not
bring it in-house?
"The more we can bring this into ... where we have the ability to at least moderate and review and understand where these comments are coming from, it
gives us a much cleaner way to handle these situations," Fishbein says.
As it turns out, the posts on NorthShoreConnect haven't been a problem so far, he adds. Patients ask questions and steer one another to relevant
information, but they don't try to recommend medicines or operations based on online diagnoses. NorthShore has had about 100 comments so far, and
staffers can see all the new comments on a single page, making them easy to review.
Focusing on Facebook
The company has also been busy in Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
Facebook in particular has been the place where the hospital organizes its online presence, hosting live chats with doctors and embedding YouTube and
Twitter links. It has created separate Facebook pages devoted to areas such as plastic surgery, the system's Kellogg Cancer Center, its neurological
institute and a diabetes program called Be Well-Lake County.
As with many organizations, NorthShore has found that Facebook bolsters customer engagement. When people complain about a bad experience, NorthShore
asks them to take the conversation offline, then refers them to concierges at its hospital sites for help. Often the patient returns to Facebook to
thank the hospital system for solving the problem.
"It's oftentimes these initially negative comments turn out to be the best business builders for us," Fishbein says. "Because it shows that we're not
just an empty company here who gets its feedback and it goes nowhere. We actually listen and take the time to respond."
With Sharecare, the new medical advice platform, Northshore is the exclusive health care partner in the Chicagoland area, says Colette Urban, director
of public relations.
Sharecare partners with a dozen hospitals and health care providers throughout the United States to answer health and wellness questions through an
interactive platform launched at the Health2.0 Conference in San Francisco last October, she says.
"Our physicians are there answering questions on a wide range of topics," Fishbein adds.
The hospital system is creating five to 10 videos a month for YouTube, and it plans to increase its original content, including more patient-focused
stories and expertise videos in which its physicians speak about procedures. But it doesn't highlight individual doctors, saying treatment is a team
effort—and that's how it is experienced by patients.
NorthShore is finding other ways to spread its content. It contributes for the Chicago Tribune's TribLocal, which is largely compiled from outside sources. Its print edition is wrapped around the daily newspaper on Thursdays.
It also maintains a relationship with NBC. The network is launching a health channel across their local TV affiliates, Urban says,
and as part of this, NBC Chicago has created a health features page on its website. NorthShore is the
exclusive health care sponsor and will have four custom advertorials as part of this initiative.
These included a hopeful story on how doctors saved the life of a 43-year-old dad with late-stage colon cancer that had
Virtually all of NorthShore's 8,000 pages of content is produced by 70 in-house authors, often medical staff, whose work is reviewed by communications
staff. Fishbein's team has three content coordinators and two Web developers, and it uses the EPiServer
content management system, produced by a company in Sweden. The hospital network also uses contract and freelance writers.
NorthShore offers applications on the iPhone, one designed in-house and the other through Epic, which powers the patient forums. But the hospital group
plans to expand its reach by opening up its website across mobile platforms.
All this allows NorthShore to build and retain its customer base in a competitive Chicago hospital environment. (Advocate Health Care, another top-10
hospital system, is based in the area, as are several major university hospital systems.) That's why NorthShore communicators are trying to find
creative ways to reach customers through the Web and social media.
"If we aren't out there, others will be," Fishbein says. "To retain business and build new business, we've got to be there."