Regulated Industries: How Healthcare and Financial Can Use Social Media

Highly-regulated industries have a right to be a bit cautious about joining the fast-changing social media landscape. A misfired tweet or haphazardous Facebook interaction can lead to serious consequences. These industries – including healthcare, pharmaceuticals, financial services, insurance providers, alcohol and tobacco, and even some government-associated entities – must answer to different federal organizations, each with its own rules, regulations and supervisory guidelines for industry behaviors.

So it’s no surprise that according to a recent article on ComputerWorld, only 10% of regulated industries have a “truly social” enterprise, where multiple social media tools have been integrated in the bigger content strategy. Most of these regulated organizations fall into an unfamiliar grey area, facing tight or vague compliance guidelines regarding social media. They may recognize the need to join the social media world, but just prefer not to deal with the potential headaches.

However, the ability to connect directly with customers (when very few competitors are doing so) can yield an enormous competitive edge. But before drafting a social media plan, first one must fully understand these regulations. Then organizations can develop and monitor internal social media policies including methods for collecting and archiving any social media content, which most regulating bodies require. Following these guidelines, regulators and their industries are both kept happy, and regulated companies can move forward to conquer social networks.

But before we see how companies are succeeding within these industries, let’s take a look at the industry regulators.

The Regulators

HIPAA – The HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) Privacy Rule addresses patient privacy and the dissemination of the broad term PHI (Protected Health Information) without written authorization of the pertaining patient. While there are no specific social media rules, the law applies to “Covered entities,” including “health-care providers” and “health plans,” and their “workforce,” including employees, volunteers, trainees, and other persons, paid or unpaid. Anything found on social media inconsistent with HIPAA’s data privacy and security regulations would be subject to penalty.

FDA – The Food and Drug Administration did take preliminary steps in the healthcare field to clarify social media concerns on how drug-makers are to interact with “unsolicited requests for off-label information… through emerging electronic media.” The FDA guidelines encourage direct responses taking public comments into a private channel, but not much more.

SEC – The Securities and Exchange Commission has briefly addressed social media pertaining to financial services, particularly registered investment advisers (RIAs). The National Examination Risk Alert: Investment Adviser Use of Social Media suggests that social media users should regularly monitor and review content in order to stay within “the federal securities laws, including, but not limited to, the antifraud provisions, compliance provisions, and record-keeping provisions.”

FINRA – In January 2010, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority published Regulatory Notice 10-06 including guidelines for blogs and social networking sites and specifying record-keeping responsibilities and supervision requirements. As a follow up publication, Regulatory Notice 11-39 dives deeper into regulations concerning archiving both static (one-way) and interactive (two-way) communications.

Healthcare Providers

With the obstacles of HIPAA and patient privacy, there is also the opportunity for increased intimacy and a personalized touch in social media. Perhaps the biggest advantage for healthcare providers is access to an easy feedback channel, with overwhelmingly positive sentiment, providing a mutually beneficial social community. With that in mind, many hospitals and private practices are taking to Facebook and Twitter to reach out to patient communities through common channels. While employees cannot dispense medical advice, there is a plethora of general health information for providers to engage present and potential patients.

Boston Children’s Hospital is a fantastic example of using Facebook to promote hospital events, health campaigns, and provides a nurturing space for thankful parents and patients to comment and engage directly with the hospital.

Cleveland Clinic reaches out to patients in a well-rounded blog to provide health information on heart and vascular issues, with featured cardiologist chats and written by the specialists themselves in a personal and educational voice.


There is an ongoing mistrust of the Pharma industry ranging from medical professionals to the general community. This has been revealed in several recent publications, most notable Ben Goldacre’s Bad Pharma. Social media is a fantastic tool for helping build trust and gaining customer feedback, both of which fall within FDA regulations.

Sanofi US Diabetes is an example of one Big Pharma company choosing a smaller community to gain a foothold in their social media ventures. Targeting the diabetes community (the company also manufactures drugs for cardiovascular, oncology and other medical groups) gives them a more unique and personalized voice to reach out and start a dialogue about creating a healthy lifestyle. Sanofi uses Facebook for diabetes education and connecting with patients, while Twitter serves as a customer service tool for its GoMeals iPhone and iPad apps.

Financial Services

Banks have been quick to lead the charge of social media with the SEC looming overhead and, surprisingly, smaller community banks have been perhaps the quickest adapters of all. Trust-building and transparency are social media’s biggest advantages to both large and small banks, while community building and product development help banks give back to customers. Financial institutions can help customers directly via Facebook and Twitter, but cannot respond to everything, as giving financial advice via social networks is explicitly prohibited.

When it comes to large consumer banks, CitiBank has proven social media community building and success is possible. They are actively using Twitter to reach out to clients and improve customer service response times. Targeting customers through Twitter is especially helpful to CitiBank, who hopes to reach young, affluent and tech-savvy groups through their increased online and social media efforts.

Financial Advisers

Within private banks and investment firms, internal departments are also trying to figure out social media. Financial Advisers must adhere to FINRA guidelines, and like banks, individual advisers are also subject to the rule prohibiting even the perceived notion of giving advice via social networks.

This year, Morgan Stanley took a big step in social media when they decided to give roughly 17,000 financial advisers at Morgan Stanley Smith Barney partial access to Twitter and Linkedin following a yearlong trial with a group of 600 employees. Don’t expect juicy updates, though. Both tweets and LinkedIn posts are pre-scripted and must be pre-approved by the global financial services firm.

Social media is a fantastic tool for reaching customers and starting a conversation about your business. Don’t be scared when it comes to regulations and compliance, or the fast-moving social media world may just pass you by! Instead, research and address your concerns, and develop a strategy that navigates them while surpassing your competitors in the social media field.

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