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A hospital in 60 seconds: TEGH uses Twitter to engage

By Pat Rich


On March 31, 2015, at 3 pm there was an unusual occurrence at the Toronto East General Hospital (TEGH) as several individuals used Twitter to tell or show what staff were doing during the next minute.

In most Canadian institutions, such an event would have involved few people — and to little purpose. But TEGH, a community teaching hospital, is different because several months ago it instituted a deliberate campaign to use social media strategically to better communicate with patients and staff.

The initiative involved the highest echelons of the hospital leadership, as all senior managers received training and are encouraged to use Twitter on a regular basis. That management team initially consisted of then-CEO Rob Devitt, Vice President Programs Carmine Stumpo, Vice President Program Support Wolf Klassen and Chief Nurse Executive Irene Andress. It has also been embraced by current CEO Sarah Downey.

Toronto East General Hospital CEO Sarah Downey (left) and Chief Nurse Executive Irene Andress

Toronto East General Hospital CEO Sarah Downey

(left) and Chief Nurse Executive Irene Andress

“I absolutely think Toronto East General is a leader and I have had to up my Twitter game in moving from CAMH (the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health),” said Downey during an interview that also involved Stumpo, Klassen and Andress. Andress is the acknowledged social media lead in the group.

“We pride ourselves on having a shared leadership model at TEGH. Social media is the fuel in this fire,” Andress noted during a Twitter chat about TEGH last December, hosted by #hcsmca — the Canadian social media health care community.

“As natural ambassadors for the hospital, they tweet to engage their stakeholders, to keep up with advances in their fields and, of course, to tell the TEGH story in their own authentic and genuine way,” is how the hospital describes it in a recent statement.

“It is an incredibly efficient way of getting thoughts out, generating discussion (and telling) what interests you as a leader. It personalizes you,” said Downey.

Stumpo wrote during the December tweet chat: “We want to connect with stakeholders and community. Social media allows us to communicate in a different way.”

Persuading senior management of the value of using Twitter to build awareness was a major early hurdle, the team acknowledges. Andress said one key benefit made obvious was how social media increases engagement with staff. Seeing how use of social media fits with the overall strategic plan of the hospital was also important.

Andress noted that Twitter has allowed management to respond quickly to comments or complaints about care that have been posted by hospital patients. “That’s very satisfying when it happens,” she said.

Training for the senior management team included pointing out the potential risks of using social media and helping the managers learn how to balance the disclosure of personal and private information. The hospital already had policies and guidelines in place to govern use of social media by staff; these guidelines are reviewed every six months.

“Being misunderstood within the cryptic language is one of my fears,” said Andress, discussing Twitter. “I am continuing to learn how to be clear, yet brief.” Stumpo noted that having his teenage children assist him was also a benefit in learning to use Twitter. “Find something you are comfortable with and start slowly, even if it is just retweeting at first,” he advised.

Having the executive team find the time to tweet on a regular basis was a logistical issue but this was dealt with by encouraging short, regular tweet sessions. “You build it into your daily routine,” said Stumpo.

Senior management is supported by a communications team that offers regular one-on-one support and sends out alerts on potential Twitter topics or timely hashtags. While management confines itself to using Twitter, the hospital also uses other social media channels (such as Facebook) to engage with the community.

“It's vital to reach out to your patients and be engaged where they are. That's the power of social media,” said Klassen.

“When we tweet we think we are tweeting for the hospital,” Klassen added, although team members are encouraged to post personal as well as hospital-related items on Twitter. “At this level the tweets are your own opinions, but clearly we have positions of responsibility within the organization so we are very cautious about what we say,” Downey added.

For some in the management team, the benefits go beyond better promoting the hospital’s work.

“For me, as chief nurse, it is a chance to engage with my professional organizations,” explained Andress. Another benefit “is seeing our nurses at the bedside connect with us and get to know us in a different way.”

She continued: “This has opened up our world, and the good news is it can be done on next to no budget.”

The probable next step for TEGH will be to start a blog written by Downey “so people can read more than 140 characters (the limit of tweets).” However, she said she did not think the hospital has yet reached its full potential in using Twitter.