Our next profile is with Chip Harman, web program manager in the Veterans Health Administration. Chip is an inspiration for anyone working in a multi-hospital system, as he is responsible for web communications, including social media, across 153 medical centers. I’ve been fortunate to meet Chip in person, and co-present with him at a local social media group. I value his advice, and I’m very pleased that he can share his experiences here.
Please introduce yourself
I am Chip Harman, web program manager in the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), part of the US Dept of Veterans Affairs. I worked in the US Dept of State doing similar website work for 20 years. My wife is a clinician at a local VA hospital, so while I work in an office environment in Washington, I get secondhand reports of what goes on in a hospital. Her work matters more for Veterans, but I feel lucky to be part of VA.
Tell us about the VA System and the department where you work.
Among the 24 million Veterans in the US, about 6 million are under the VHA health care system which is comprised of and 153 medical centers with 1400 sites of care as well as a very famous research wing. There are also a number of national health care programs, like homelessness and suicide prevention. Congress scrutinizes how we spend the taxpayers’ money and how well we treat Veterans, and Veterans’ organizations pay close attention to our work, and aren’t shy about letting us know what they think.; we also have many champions who recognize our good works. We also know that we provide some of the best medical care in the world, using medical technologies developed in cooperation with the medical academic and military communities without whom we could not do our work. We also have some of the best medical information systems; our EHR systems are famous and constantly evolving and improving. My favorite piece of VA news this month: We now have a national Director of Reproductive Health. I think that is *so* cool; the VA now has gynecologists on staff! This really is NOT my father’s VA….
What got you interested in social media?
The potential to reach people on their own terms. Social media are many things to many people, and it is fun kind of challenge to figure out what works. The fact that it is always changing – evolving, I always remind people – is one of its attractions for me. I first started with Facebook simply for social reasons. I find it fun on some levels, intriguing on others. I don’t play Farmville. Or Mafia Wars. I have re-energized my interest in delicious.com, but I need to learn more about how to interact with it. Twitter also intrigues me, and I love using it for professional development, among other things.
What aspects of Social Media do you focus on at the VA?
Facebook gets lots of attention because of its popularity, and this is a good thing. We are using it at many of our local medical centers in a kind of informational mode, but the engagement is there, too. We get lots of comments, some negative, but in general the local fans love their local hospitals. Negative comments are the biggest challenge. They can be harsh, and time-consuming to develop appropriate responses. But responding is the best demonstration of interest in your audience. Twitter is coming along more slowly, and I personally feel that has the greatest utility for things like emergency communications.
Is there a particular Social Network that you prefer for your program?
Facebook hits our demographics pretty well. Our surveys show that our percentage of Twitter users tracks closely to the entire US population. We’ve been advocating and supporting Facebook pages for our Medical Centers for about a year now, and most of them see steady growth in getting fans. Twitter will be slower, and some may never use it for significant outreach because of a lack of internal interest.
What are the goals of your social media program?
Information and engagement. I remind our folks often that we need to drive Veterans to our official .GOV websites for the authoritative information, but operating in Facebook means we have a level of engagement not possible anywhere else. Facebook can be lighthearted but it can also draw people into the messages we are trying to put out there – that VA has the best care, and that Veterans returning from recent conflicts can get help their fathers couldn’t (but can now). It’s a tough sell for a large organization like VA.
What’s your opinion on trying to measure ROI for your social media efforts?
ROI is tough for any governmental organization to gauge. What we look at right now is a growing audience as a sign of acceptance, the level and frequency of engagement and links of usage from our social media to our “traditional” web presence as our best measures of success right now. But that is likely to change as the internet and social media and government budgets evolve.
How much staff time do you and your team devote to social media a week? How much do you think is right?
The most time-consuming aspect is setup and learning. We have multiple staff in my office working on materials for our DC-based Facebook presence, but at the Medical Centers it is a different story. The people in VA who work most closely with the Veterans who have most recently returned – what we call “OEFOIF” (Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom)– are the most enthusiastic. Usually the public affairs staff directly manage the social media, but they often get significant help from the OEFOIF staffers who work day-to-day with the Veterans. They probably spend about two hours a week total on Facebook. I am trying to convince folks that by repurposing information for social media, you will be able to extend your reach with all forms of media. I also try to help them find time-saving measures, like writing up some materials in advance, and to schedule postings. Time is a big challenge for us.
Did you need to “sell” social media to upper management?
Yes. Like any large operation, it is a question of priorities. There was general acceptance of the idea of using social media, but the practice is trickier. Our network still blocks some key resources on the web, and we have to work with the network and security folks to demonstrate business needs. We aren’t terribly different than many other health care systems in that way. Congress expressed interest in seeing that VA examine the use of social media, especially for younger, returning service members. What amuses me now is seeing that our age groups on Facebook is a nice bell curve with a peak at about age 50. What I didn’t see coming was management’s discomfort with employee use of say, Facebook. The perception is that it is a time-waster. Personally I take the view that those who waste time will do it any way they can. Opening Facebook helped many folks understand the value of Facebook for engaging with the audience.
Can you share a success story? Something that has proved the value of social media for your organization.
We recently had a comment on one of our platforms from a Veteran that indicated he need some serious counseling, that he might commit suicide. We have had such experiences before, and we had a process for mental health counselors to contact him (while respecting his privacy), and he accepted our offer of help. More typical is a Veteran who feels that the care is not adequate. Sometimes the comments are just venting, and that is fine, but there are many instances where we have engaged with the Veteran to help them find appropriate services. We don’t encourage social media as a channel for getting health services since there are serious privacy and other issues involved. Emergency communications (power failures, floods) are the easiest demonstrations to prove the worth of social media. Twitter has helped Medical Centers alert the media and their patients to facility closures, for example.
What advice do you have for Hospitals considering a social media program?
Look at what others are doing, learn from their experiences. Don’t paint a rosy picture to management, but look at how this will engage your medical community with an existing community. You have the chance to enter the conversation, learn from it and sometimes shape it. The traditional public affairs view is that the organization can control the information about you, but no one has ‘controlled the message’ about your facility since it first opened its doors. (I actually heard a hospital director say out loud in a meeting, “But we’ll lose control of the message.”) That’s echo chamber stuff. My advice is that social media is essential today, and you need also to calculate the risk of ignoring it.
Any final thoughts?
We are trying to provide another channel for Veterans to use. We spend a lot of time talking about success of health research, treatments, medical staff and programs that readers are not likely to know about. Some topics seem boring to me, and then we’ll get lots of sustained reactions and comments that remind me of how much I need to learn about our Veterans. Social media provide a great means of engagement to learn about our audiences.