May 11, 2010

Blue Shield CA making strides in social media


New programs are believed to be a first for health insurance industry

JD LasicaAs those of us who’ve worked with health care companies know, the health care field has been slow to get off the dime and embrace the gamut of changes that social media offers, from interactions with customers to providing a real-time feedback loop to develop new products or services. But that’s starting to change.

Today I had a long conversation with Jason Yang, brand manager in the Corporate Brand Marketing department of Blue Shield of California, who filled me in on a host of social media initiatives that the not-for-profit health plan has recently launched, chief among them:

• A customer ratings and reviews program, launched Jan. 13 (announcement here), that enables Blue Shield CA members to provide feedback on their Blue Shield health plans. Blue Shield CA is using a platform built by Bazaarvoice, an Austin, Texas-based company that helps businesses analyze online customer conversations in a style similar to Yelp and Amazon. It’s believed to be the first health plan in the nation to invite online feedback from members to improve the health care experience.

Members can simply log into their account to rate their Blue Shield health plan and read other members’ reviews. Members can rate different plans using a five-star scale to measure overall satisfaction, customer service, value, doctor access, prescription drug coverage and whether or not the plan is easy to use and understand. Members can also provide comments and advice, though no information that identifies an individual is permitted, Yang says, and members aren’t permitted to rate physicians or providers. The pilot has generated positive feedback from members, so Blue Shield CA is expanding the program to all its 3 million members.

• A question and answer interactive forum, launched April 29 (announcement here), that allows members to ask questions and receive answers from other members or from participating physicians. Members can discuss topics such as allergies, dental care, diet/food/nutrition, women’s health, first aid and more. You have to be a member to post in the Ask & Answer forum, but it’s visible to the public and it’s optimized for search engine indexing, Yang says.

According to a study last year by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 61 percent of American adults go online for health information, so it makes sense for Blue Shield of California to provide vetted information. Yang describes it as a four-tiered process, with an automated filter at the front end to screen for obscenities or spam, two moderators and a corporate brand manager who monitor the conversations. (I can appreciate the challenges, since I set up an Ask the Expert medical feature as editorial director of back in the late ’90s.)

“We’re the first health plan in the country to do this, as far as we know,” Yang says of the programs. The goal, he adds, is to provide transparency and enhance Blue Shield CA’s services. “We mine it [customer feedback] for data, to see what issues people are concerned about, track scores for the various plans and relay the information to the appropriate teams so they can get first-hand updates on what the plans need to address.”

“We encountered a lot of hurdles internally, ranging from what’s acceptable from a privacy and legal perspective to making sure everything met the requirements of the nationwide Medicare governing body and the state agencies that oversee health care,” he says. In the end, both programs are modest but important steps in bringing Blue Shield of California’s 3 million customers into the conversation.

Blue Shield CA has a Facebook page set up by a member of the community and will soon launch a presence on Twitter, Yang says. They use Radian6 for measuring an array of metrics.

I should point out that Blue Shield organizations operate independently of each other from state, so while some information-sharing happens, the plans generally work on their own without a lot of joint ventures. (It’s a bit of an odd set-up, frankly: Blue Shield and Blue Cross are competitors, even though they are both governed by the BlueCross BlueShield Association.)

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JD Lasica, founder of, is now co-founder of the cruise discovery engine Cruiseable. See his About page, contact JD or follow him on Twitter or Google Plus.

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2 thoughts on “Blue Shield CA making strides in social media

  1. “the health care field has been slow to get off the dime and embrace the gamut of changes that social media offers”

    However, public health officials have embraced it and it seems well-suited to that arena. Sarah Evans posted slides a while back from a presentation about its use by public health agencies.

    • I agree with that, and am a fan of Sarah's. Was mostly referring to the paralysis by many of the major players because of concern about running afoul of a thicket of government regulations.

      Speaking of which, I forgot to post a pointer to a slide show I did on best pharma efforts in social media, will add that now.