Clicking that thumbs-up “like” button on Facebook is moving beyond cute baby photos and hip new restaurants in town. Now hospitals are joining the mix.

A recent article published in the American Journal of Medical Quality says positive endorsements on Facebook could actually mean something about hospital quality.

Researchers looked at two measures: 30-day mortality rates and patient satisfaction.

The study found that hospitals with higher patient death rates got fewer “likes.” It also found that people who “like” a hospital on Facebook are more likely to recommend it.

Dr. Ashish Jha,  a professor of health policy at the Harvard School of Public Health, says these findings make sense. But he cautions that the study of how accurately social media trends reflect hospital quality is in the early days.

While he says the data are still evolving Facebook users could be on to something. Jha says many people are using social media to chronicle almost every part of their lives, including hospital stays.

“If a hospital is feeding patients badly it’s going to spread much faster than in the pre-Facebook age or pre-Twitter age,” he says.

That goes for medical errors, long wait times or hospital-acquired infections, too.

Jha also points out that you know the people in your Facebook news feed and are more likely to trust what they’re reporting. “In a big picture way if you start seeing ratings from a local hospital and all of your friends have had a terrible experience, that will influence you,” he says.

These kinds of instant and widespread positive or negative ratings on social media could be a game changer, “pushing the health care industry to be more accountable,” Jha says.

Of course there are several limitations when using Facebook to evaluate a hospital, he adds. The sample size could be too small and easily skew the results or hospital staff or hired marketing guns could be inflating the number of “likes.”

But Jha says as more people start using social media to talk about hospital quality, those problems will level out.

While Dr. Jha thinks this will change the face of health care, he says many other doctors dismiss it as nonsense.

“There is deep skepticism about everything I’ve said,” Jha says. “There is still a strong belief by those in the medical community that patient satisfaction can’t really measure quality.”

And maybe that’s why many hospitals have yet to embrace social networking. In the New York area where the study was done, only about half of the hospitals had a Facebook page.

But more pages are cropping up. One interesting effort is under way through the investigative news group ProPublica. It’s running a Patient Harm Community Facebook page with more than 1,500 members sharing their experiences about medical mistakes.

Can Facebook ‘Likes’ Tell You Something About Hospital Quality? 24 August,2015Lisa Aliferis

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