All VA medical centers have Facebook pages. Now what?

News analysis: To have all 152 VA centers on Facebook is a milestone, but what happens next?

The Veterans Affairs Department announced this week that all 152 of its medical centers now have Facebook pages.

Secretary Eric Shinseki described the large-scale Facebook outreach as a milestone for expanding veterans’ access to the VA and a way to “embrace transparency and two-way communication.”

Many of the centers' Facebook pages are months' old, while a few are new. While the benchmark is notable, the engagement with veterans through Facebook is a work in progress, judging by the relatively small number of conversations happening on the pages. 

The Facebook pages' popularity varies: the VA center in Boise, Idaho, had 242 “likes,” while the center in Orlando, Fla., had 2,372 “likes” as of Dec. 22.

A review of Facebook pages for four VA medical centers indicated that the centers are publishing primarily general medical news bulletins and practical information on VA benefits, as well as notices of bake sales, holiday events and commemorative events. The Facebook information appeared to be similar to the self-promoting news that flows from VA public affairs offices.

In addition, the anticipated “two-way communication” between veterans and the medical centers appeared to be limited at this time. The centers reviewed averaged 15 comments on Facebook per center during a recent three-week period. Some of those comments were from VA staff.

On the other hand, to their credit, some of the centers have posted critical or negative information on their Facebook sites. The Dayton VA medical center posted an inspector general’s report on its Facebook page in April about problems with VA patients being infected with hepatitis due to poor practices at the center’s dental clinic. No one commented.

Meanwhile, discussions between veterans and community members are occurring elsewhere on the Web. For example, the VA's own Vantage Point blog edited by Brandon Friedman, director of online communications and a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, regularly has dozens of comments on its posts.

In addition, a guest blogger posted on the Bilirico Project blog on Dec. 20 about whether VA medical centers are providing adequate care for gay and lesbian veterans. Five people commented.

On Facebook, VA clinicians are not permitted to discuss specific health concerns of individual veterans, the VA said in its Dec. 21 announcement. But the VA staffers are allowed to provide “helpful information” and crisis intervention.

“In the last year, VA’s Crisis Line counselors have successfully intervened on Facebook in cases where veterans have suggested suicidal thoughts or presented with other emotional crises,” the VA said.

Currently, the VA has more than 345,000 fans on all its Facebook pages combined. The department’s main Facebook page has over 154,000 fans and its medical centers combined have more than 69,000 subscribers.

The next step is for every medical center to create a presence on Twitter as well, the VA said in its news release.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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