Interviews: How Social Media Is Changing the Medical Field
More than a thousand U.S. hospitals now use social media, and a recent study found that over 65% of physicians use social media for professional purposes. But with more than 5,000 registered hospitals in the country, there is room for growth.
We have a few stories that show how social media is changing the way medical professionals from organizations like the Mayo Clinic, Sermo, and Owning Pink work with one another and their patients — and the lessons other professionals can learn from their efforts and use social media tools and savvy to build better relationships.
Lee Aases, Social Media Director at Mayo Clinic, had this to say: “They [doctors] really don’t have choice about whether [they're] going to be involved in social media or not. Hospitals or health systems as well as individual medical providers will be talked about in the social media space. By joining in on the conversation, they can help influence the conversation which can have personal or organizational benefits while also doing good for society by providing trustworthy credible reliable information.”
Building a Social Media Presence
Aase created the Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media in January in order to educate healthcare professionals on how to use social media to better perform their jobs, improve administrative efficiency, and provide leadership to others in healthcare.
The center will host its first-ever social media residency with Ragan Communications in October. “It’s an intense immersion into use of these tools but not just as the beginner level. It’s about thinking strategically and applying these tools in a particular context,” said Aase.
One of the topics that Aase stresses in his social media residency is that healthcare professionals need to have all the necessary social media channels in place for when something notable occurs. In 2009, Mr. and Mrs. Cowan — an 89-year-old man and his 83-year-old wife — struck a few notes on the piano in the Mayo Clinic atrium. A patient shot and uploaded the video of the duet on YouTube, and when the Mayo Clinic posted it to its blog, it went viral.
Because the Mayo Clinic was prepared, it was able to generate 7.7 million views and was even featured on Good Morning America.
Dr. Lissa Rankin knows the importance of being prepared to respond to something newsworthy. She began a Twitter feed to talk about swine flu after she saw mass panic on Twitter. She made her tweets fun and relevant, so she went viral. “I just happened to show up at the right time with the right message,” said Rankin.
Empowering Patients Using Social Media
Rankin’s immersion in social media began a few years ago. After 12 years of medical training and eight years spent working for a private practice as a gynecologist in San Diego, Rankin wasn’t feeling fulfilled. Then, within a two week span, she gave birth to her daughter, her father passed away, her dog died, and her brother ended up in liver failure.
Wiped out from this “perfect storm” as she calls it, she quit her job. It took her several years of contemplating a broader definition of health until she figured out what she wanted to do next.
In April of 2009, she founded Owning Pink. Owning Pink became a community of people who were sick, who had gone through a life transition, lost a loved one, become unemployed, or found themselves in an empty nest. The other half of the community was comprised of healers — therapists, workshop leaders, and life coaches, and others.
Owning Pink built up traction quickly and within months, Rankin had 25 contributing writers. In 2010 she was featured as one of Forbes Most Inspiring Women to Follow on Twitter. Rankin and her husband still manage the @LissaRankin Twitter feed, which now has over 114,000 followers.
“I’ve touched more lives in this way than I ever did as a doctor,” said Rankin. While Rankin’s path is not conventional, doctors can learn from how she has empowered patients to take ownership of their health by providing those patiences with ways to connect online both with their healthcare providers and with others that might be going through the same things.
This kind of collaboration can even lead to new medical advances. When some women were diagnosed with a rare heart condition called Spontaneous Artery Dissection, they were frustrated that there was very little information on prevention and treatment of the disease. They connected through an online forum and asked to be studied by Dr. Hayes at Mayo Clinic. Within 18 weeks, a pilot virtual registry turned up more recruits than they could take.
Responding to Negative Comments and Establishing Boundaries
Doctor-to-patient social networking can be incredibly beneficial, but open lines of communication also require knowing how to address sticky situations.
When Rankin first started Owning Pink, she received a lot of Twitter messages from people asking about private medical problems. She discovered quickly that she would have to establish boundaries. Now, if someone asks her a specific medical question, he or she will get directed to a policy page.
For Aase, there was a situation when a Latvian physician at Mayo Clinic was quoted in a Latvian newspaper as saying that he could not equally treat Russians and Latvians. Russian nationals started to copy and paste the same message on the Mayo Facebook Page stating that he should be fired. Because the discussion was not a dialogue and it was taking away from what most people were coming to the Facebook Page for, the clinic decided 70 comments later to start directing people to a discussion tab away from its general Facebook Page.
“You have to be flexible, you have to be able to not overreact to something but to say ‘what’s the right way to handle this,’ and you need to balance those interests,” said Aase.
For doctors who are interested in using social media but hesitant to take their connection with patients online, doctor-to-doctor social networking may be a territory worth exploring.
Micro Social Networking for Doctors
Daniel Palestriant, MD created a social media service called Sermo as a sort of doctors’ lounge that extends its reach beyond hospital corridors.
“We created Sermo as a way for physicians to connect and collaborate with each other on clinical cases, healthcare reform, and other aspects of being a doctor to be able to provide excellent patient care with a network of physicians they can interact with,” said Ashley Serotta, Senior Director of Membership at Sermo. Five years and 130,000 members later, it’s is the largest online network for physicians in the U.S.
“Doctors are a little more gun-shy about social media because of the fear that is instilled in them for malpractice … Sermo is comfortable to them because they almost don’t realize that they are participating in social media.”
Open discussion in a pre-screened private community makes it easier for some doctors to navigate social media. It also provides them with sophisticated tools to better be able to provide better care for their patients. Sermo recently released “Consult,” an iPhone app that enables doctors to take photos of patient charts and within three clicks get answers from colleagues across the country on their cases.
“The value of a niche social network is not to be understated in this wild west of social media. You can be in a protected space, a closed space and be able to know where that communication is going and who is reading it,” said Serotta.
Being Authentic Online: On Dropping the White Coat Act
Even through physicians have taken strides when it comes to their participation in social media, Dr. Rankin recognizes that many doctors are afraid to show their humanity. Part of her mission is the help to fuse clinical knowledge with a human voice.
“I was trained that doctors are supposed to be up on this pedestal and we’re supposed to put on our white coats and play this role. That’s not necessarily who we are. We’re doctors; we’re supposed to be different and we’re not. We’re humans. I personally use social media as a way to communicate to people my humanity, that I have flaws, that I make mistakes, that I have doubts, insecurities and fears,” said Rankin.