Healthcare in the U.S. is provided across a frighteningly broken and fragmented system of providers and institutions. As a result, the quality of American healthcare is consistently ranked among the worst in the developed world, and costs incurred per patient are 2-5 times higher than in comparable countries. Our problem isn’t that we’re incapable of providing high-quality care – in pockets throughout the country, we provide the most effective care in the world. Our problem is that for every five-star healthcare system we support, there are a dozen systems struggling to stay up-to-date.
Our healthcare system is broken because it’s fragmented. Information fails to flow freely, and best practices are treated as competitive, proprietary elements. In a healthcare culture that spends millions advertising “We’re #1,” it comes as no surprise that someone else has to be #2, #3, or even #50. This is entirely intentional. This situation is created by the restriction of information – and it can be salvaged, in turn, by improving information flow. This is where social media can pay big dividends.
The Value of Social Learning
If you ask physicians what they like best about the continuing education courses they take, they’ll tell you that they enjoy engaging with other doctors in the hallways; they love the interactivity of the sessions. If you followed those same physicians back to their workplaces and asked how they answer the questions that are raised over the course of a normal workday, they’d tell you that they consult with a colleague. What they won’t say, probably because they lack the perspective, is that the majority of learning that occurs over a medical career is social learning. My proposition is that social media applications, like Twitter, are the natural evolution of the social learning that takes place in hallways and lecture halls throughout the country. The added benefit is that social media can extend learning across time and space so questions can be posed, and answered, by broader audiences of healthcare professionals.
How Should Medical Practices Utilize Social Media?
Social media applications have three primary uses for physicians and healthcare systems. The first is the provision and coordination of patient care. Here the general, open applications like Facebook and Twitter should not be used, or should be used only in very narrow circumstances, because of issues pertaining to privacy and liability. There are new enterprise platforms being developed that add a social layer to the workflow of healthcare professionals to enable a collaborative care model. The second use is as a vehicle for engaging the public in a broad conversation about preventative health and disease management. Here the general, open applications like Facebook and Twitter are the perfect vehicle to disseminate new information about health and wellness. These channels also help the practice or institution promote itself across the community. The third use is as a vehicle for education and staff development. Here a combination of general, open applications and enterprise platforms ensure that information flows across the organization and that novel best practices and latest advances are integrated quickly and effectively into the organization as needed.
Of the three uses, it is the first that offers the greatest upside, but also the greatest challenge; the second may not have the greatest return for the effort. For this reason I advise organizations and healthcare professionals to embrace bucket #3 – to implement a model for effective learning and professional development through social media. This is a safe and relatively simple first step to extract the greatest value from the first and second buckets.
How Should Patients Use Social Media?
Patients’ perspectives on health are, understandably, very different from their doctors’. One of the first questions that patients ask themselves after being diagnosed is, “Am I alone?” Being a patient is frightening, and feeling isolated in your diagnosis makes the experience much, much worse.
Social media ensures that patients can find one another, they can offer support, and they can offer counsel. Facebook groups allow patients to support a cause. Hashtags and tweetchats on Twitter allow patients to share, to curate, and to engage in dialogue. Platforms like ACOR and CaringBridge allow for more in-depth conversations when Twitter character limits just won’t suffice. Importantly, patients may just want to lurk or they may want to remain anonymous in their plight or affliction, and many social media applications have been developed with that need in mind.
In closing, I offer a few words of caution: what you share online may never be truly protected. Data breaches happen, and information can live in “the cloud” forever. Regulations have been slow to protect health-related information that’s shared through social media channels. My advice is to be protective of your personal information, but to not be paralyzed – the benefits of supporting health and wellness through social media far outweigh the risks.
Brian S. McGowan, PhD, is a research scientist who has worked as a medical educator, mentor, accredited provider and commercial supporter. McGowan is author of the forthcoming fall 2012 release of #SOCIALQI: Simple Solutions for Improving Your Healthcare. Connect with Brian on Twitter: @BrianSMcGowan