Healthcare and Social Media: Bringing the Focus Back to the Patient

Health Care and Social MediaLast Wednesday, I attended the Health 2.0 NYC Meetup on Social Media, bringing together twitter-savvy health care providers, healthcare media consultants and healthcare tech leaders to discuss what effect social media has had on the healthcare industry so far and what more can and should be done to leverage social media to better the healthcare industry.

Unlike most that were in the room, I’m not yet, properly speaking, a health industry professional; I don’t work in health tech, and I’m not yet a health care provider. More like the general public, however, I am an avid social media user. From that standpoint, I found the most interesting point of the discussion to be something not business or tech related but something which should be directly relevant to all patients: if a health tech business or a health care practice implements social media, it should also optimize its practice by bringing the focus back to the patient.

Social media is a democratizing force. It thrives not on the usual hierarchies of authority that dominate medical practice, but rather is built on the interests of those that use it. In other words, a patient doesn’t participate in social media because their doctor (or insurance company or some marketing agent) told them to but because they want to – because it’s about a disease area that has touched them or their friends personally, because their friends are using it, because it’s directly relevant and useful to them. According to Aafia Chaundry and others at the panel who have done market research in this area, no matter how you look at the statistics surrounding who is using social media for healthcare, you will find that no income, age, gender, or race bracket is dominating the equation. Rather, the use of new healthcare technology is driven by passion – the desire to connect with other patients, learn more about a particular disease area, be healthier, etc.

In short, social media, unlike top-down communications, not only provides a medium for two-way communications, but allows patients to determine the topic and focus of the communication. So, a healthcare business that wants to utilize social media to connect with patients should not only provide the open communications channel (of email, or Facebook, or Twitter, etc.), but also implement and market services useful to their patients that will encourage them to keep utilizing their services, both offline and online.

This idea of patient engagement wasn’t new to anybody at the event, and as I looked around the room, there were many who had developed programs that have had great success in engaging their patients. There was Wellness Layers whose (me+we+info)2 could be considered something of a model for patient engagement and had driven a remarkable, 8-fold increase in patient traffic and usage to Nutrisystem’s site. There was Jen Dyer, MD, MPH, aka @EndoGoddess, who had developed an iPhone app to personally text her adolescent patients to make sure that they were remaining on their treatment schedules, catching many a problem before it worsened and even providing a way for her to assist in coordinating her patients’ care with other departments within the hospital.

Looking around the room, there was also a wide variety of views regarding the proper nature and format of patient engagement that I feel was deeply rooted in individuals’ perceptions of an ideal doctor-patient relationship and previous experiences with social media. One of the panelists had created a Twitter account dedicated to her pursuit of wellness following a potential breast cancer diagnosis; another declared that she would sooner give out her Social Security number over the internet than her medical information. Some worried that social media may be “too democratic” in that it may exclude or devalue expert opinion, while others believed that social media communities would be able to self-police themselves in order to chastise members that went too far in their conclusions and correct egregious medical errors. Even the health care providers on the panel were decidedly split in their experiences with social media: Dr. Jen Dyer felt that her social media and text messaging efforts greatly improved the quality of her patient encounters, but Dr. Arthur Lubitz (@NYCAllergyDr) worried that the extra communications distracted doctors from preparing for patients encounters and may lead patients to devalue the in-office visit.

In the end, like the healthcare and tech professionals at the event, patients will also have differing relationships with social media. Some will gladly text their doctor, while others may feel more comfortable or require more direct guidance. So perhaps the most important point is one made by Esther Dyson, healthcare tech thought leader and entrepreneur/investor, about midway through the panel: it’s important to give patients the option of social media.

Social media may allow more transparent, peer-to-peer communication between patients and providers, and provide the greater relevancy to specific patients by connecting them with the communities that share their interest and passion. However, it is not a panacea to prevent all breakdown in doctor-patient communications, not a cure for problems of coordination of care, and certainly not a solution to our failing healthcare system. It is a tool for communication, but a powerful one, for after all, communication is at the heart of all good medicine.

Image Credit: Medical Web Times