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Patients want to use social media tools to manage health care

Two reports say more people seek services and health information delivered through social media, and that physicians are in most demand to share them.

By — Posted April 30, 2012

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Some patients have moved beyond wanting social media content they can “follow” or “like.” They want social media to be something that helps them coordinate care and navigate the health care system, and they think physicians are the best people to deliver it.

A survey of 1,060 U.S. adults by the PwC Health Research Institute found that a third of respondents are gravitating toward social media as a place for discussions of health care. Patients’ attraction to these online communities is prompting many health care organizations to reshape their social media strategy from one focused on marketing to one that is part of an overall business strategy to engage patients, interact with them and even provide services in an attempt to help bring down the costs of providing care. And physicians are playing a major role in this revised strategy.

What struck Karla Anderson, a partner in PwC’s Health Industries practice, about the survey’s findings was the power that physicians have in establishing a two-way communication through social media. Respondents to PwC’s survey said they are most likely to trust information posted by physicians, with 61% saying so. This was well above the amount who said they are likely to trust drug companies (37%).

Anderson said the findings show a great opportunity for physicians to engage patients in a much more powerful way through social media.

There is definitely interest on the patients’ part in connecting, said Caitlin Lorincz, research analyst for the Global Institute for Emerging Healthcare Practices at CSC. She said she has heard from many physicians that they are getting Facebook friend requests from patients. But a large majority of those physicians ignore the requests because they are concerned about comments being taken out of context and privacy and liability issues, she said.

Lorincz said a simple solution to alleviating those concerns is to establish both a personal and professional presence. Several organized medical associations, including the American Medical Association, recommend this strategy.

CSC published a report in April that found social media use among physicians is actually higher than consumers. However, the report said, most physicians are using it in their personal but not professional lives. The report offered no specific numbers.

What patients want

PwC’s survey finds that patients aren’t looking to see what their physician is up to on a Saturday night, or to share photos. They want to use social media as a tool to manage their health care.

When asked what services they would find valuable if offered on social media, 72% of patients said availability of appointments, 71% said appointment reminders, and 70% said referral to specialists. The survey did not ask about specific sites such as Twitter or Facebook. And a third said they would be comfortable having their social media conversations monitored if it would help them identify ways to improve their health and better coordinate care. They were not asked who they would prefer to do the monitoring.

The report found that embracing social media potentially could help doctors reduce workloads by moving some interactions that are currently done by phone or in the office to social media platforms.

“The democratization of information through social media is shaping clinical encounters and the patient-provider relationship,” said Wen-ying Sylvia Chou, program director for the National Cancer Institute’s health communication and informatics research branch.

PwC’s Anderson said physicians with limited resources to devote to managing a social media presence could identify activities that occur within the practice that can be moved to a digital outlet.

“In light of price compression and increasing demands of physicians on patients, I think really having a physician or office staff step back and say, ‘Where do we spend a lot of time that we might be able to offer even a subset of our patient base the opportunity to interact through some type of digital channel?’ I think there’s great opportunity in that,” Anderson said. For example, she said, some aspects of scheduling or appointments reminders could be moved to social media. In addition to saving time, it’s what patients are coming to expect.

Lorincz said social media responsibilities can be shared by several people within the practice.

She said there always should be physician oversight, but that someone in the practice who is excited about social media could produce the bulk of it. If there are questions that need to be taken offline, anyone in the practice could be instructed to let a patient know that. Meanwhile, multiple staff members always can be on the lookout for resources to share and educational material to pass along to patients.

Because physicians have a level of trust others might find valuable, they might be pulled into others’ social media efforts, Anderson said.

Physicians may not have time or interest in creating fresh content to post on a regular basis, for example. But Anderson said there may be opportunities for collaborative partnerships with other members of large, integrated care delivery networks or advocacy groups related to the physician’s speciality and patient interests.

“Just creating those connections that make it seem the physician is at the center of helping patients navigate the system — there’s a lot of value in that,” she said.

One example is Mercy, a 28-hospital system in the Midwest. It is creating an application to allow patients to “share” their physician’s profile with Facebook friends by clicking a “share” button that will post that physicians profile to the patient’s personal Facebook page.

“Once our physicians agree to have their Mercy profile shared, they don’t need to do anything else,” said Brad Herrick, director of digital marketing for Mercy. “This allows them to be somewhat social media-savvy even if they don’t have their own professional Facebook page.”

Experts and analysts said patient demand for physicians on social media will only increase in the short term.

“One of the greatest risks of social media is ignoring social media,” said Don Sinko, chief integrity officer of Cleveland Clinic. “It’s out there, and people are using it whether you like it or not.”

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