How Social Media Might Benefit Health Care and Be Meaningful to Patient Health

The subtitle to this blog post should be How Strep Throat Can Lead You to Change Doctors, but there’s a point here about how social media might fill a wide chasm of disconnect between patients and physicians.

Maybe I’m sentimental, but I love the stories my dad tells of being a general practitioner making house calls along the shores of South Haven, Michigan. I realize there’s a lot that’s not practical about this approach today, and advantages for the current system, but every time I sit down at my dad’s piano, I remember that it was gifted to him by a patient who he took care of for many, many years. (It’s a classic 8′ grand, so no trivial gift!).

Can you imagine a patient-doctor relationship today that would be so “meaningful” that a patient would make this type of gift to his or her physician? Can you sense the gratitude that this man must have felt towards a doctor who stopped by in the evenings to check on him, attend to his comfort, and take time for a cup of tea with the patient’s worried wife? Can you guess how humbled my dad was to receive that gift?

Bear with me, I am getting to a point about social media …

Ok, now let’s snap back to today’s reality. How many of you feel a true sense of gratitude towards your health care providers or a solid emotional connection? How well can we really separate our emotional experience with health care from our physical well-being? Feel like this is a bunch of mushy nonsense? Ok, would they know your name if you met in another context? More importantly, does your primary health care provider know you well enough to recognize when you’re not acting yourself and be able to use this observation to make educated decisions and recommendations about your health?

When I think of my local family practice, I get frustrated. Case in point: I was told last year that I had to “follow protocol” and “wait for a nurse to call back” before getting a basic strep swab. Now, I was on good enough terms with my (then) primary care doctor that if he heard me say “Hey Doc, my throat’s on fire and I see these fuzzy white patches on my throat – can I come in to get a swap culture done?” I would have been on my way in a heartbeat.

But there was NO chance that I would ever be able to have that 30 second conversation with him due to the current system of administrative screening, followed by nurse screening; making any direct communication with physicians impossible. I had to take the initiative to call back and beg for permission to get a culture after not hearing back for 3 hours. When I compared this experience with what we expect as clients of other industries, I really started scratching my head. Would anyone put up with that at a restaurant, clothing store, Amazon, Zappos, or anywhere else? Of course not.

Dang, I could have TWEETED my request for a strep culture to my doc and it would have taken him 2 seconds to reply “Come on in.”

I know that my old family practice is following common protocol – they didn’t invent this model of disservice on their own. And I know that us pesky patients can be quite a handful sometimes if we actually make it through the administrative and all other pre-screening barriers to actually express ourselves directly to our physician. But does this model lead to better health?

If the primary purpose of the doctor-patient relationship is to promote health, prevent disease, and help patients lead healthier (dare I say happier) lives, then wouldn’t a system where we could have direct and ongoing dialogue with our primary care physicians on a regular basis BEFORE we get so sick that we can’t work, be parents or lead our productive lives serve everyone’s interests? (If not, maybe we need a sanity check on incentives and the basis of health care spending – but that’s a whole other discussion). And maybe, just maybe, this is where social media and better access to our own patient records could fill a gap.

I don’t pretend to think that FaceBook, LinkedIn, or Twitter can recapture or replace the type of bond I described between my dad and that patient, but many of us ARE connecting on these platforms today. A weird virtual community, granted – but a community nonetheless. And for those physicians who tire of us question-asking pesky patients, maybe using social media to ask those quick questions (can I please get a strep swab?) would be less intrusive than a phone call or walk-in “interruption.”

If we can get past the security issues (which we can and will as more attention and great minds address it), social media offers a new way for patients and physicians to connect in a more “meaningful” way. If we could maintain an ongoing dialogue with those we entrust with our health, I think we’d see a lot less misdiagnosis, unhappy patients (malpractice lawsuits), stressed out doctors, and unhealthy patients. Heck, as a patient I would subscribe to a service offered by my primary care physician to review my health tweets about exercise, diet, energy level, etc. on a regular basis and reach out with suggestions or concerns! Wouldn’t you?

Despite the fact that I respect, appreciate and genuinely like the physicians at our old family practice, my kids and I are not patients there anymore. There’s no evidence they miss me or even know we’re gone, despite the fact that we had been there for years. And I’ve never been a difficult patient to deal with – at all. I talk more with the Nurse Practitioner (who is my daughter’s boyfriend’s mother) about health concerns more than with the primary care physician who is formally listed on my insurance. Why? Because she knows me, I see her at horse shows, and she emails me Maxine jokes. We are socially connected. I trust her. We have a social context to draw from. It’s too bad her practice isn’t close enough for a strep swab.

In my desperation to get treated for strep so I could get back to work, I reached out to my former ob-gyn, Elizabeth Shadigian, to see if she knew of a better option than an expensive trip to urgent care. Yep, I used my mobile phone to Google her name, pressed the “Call” button from Google Maps, and within minutes, was actually connecting directly to her. Her practice has a website, and she publishes her email address, LinkedIn profile, FaceBook profile, and Twitter profile where she posts info about flu clinics, invitations to health-related educational lectures, and fun community events (darn, I missed fountain making class!)

In person, by phone, by email, tweet, FB post, or LinkedIn (um, what … link?), Elizabeth is ready to engage with me about my health in whatever format works for me. Wow. Of course she’s not tweeting anything about my personal health – come on – she’s a consummate professional who knows and cares about me! But I have complete confidence that whenever I have a health concern, I can connect with her directly, she will remember who I am, and she knows me well enough to use that context to inform educated recommendations about my health. Wow.

I’m truly grateful for her willingness to communicate openly and directly with me about my health. I wouldn’t go anywhere else and I recommend her practice to EVERYONE who mentions the word “doctor.” Sharing her social media and online information with her patients was a jaw-dropper for me (ever try asking for your primary care physician’s email address? Try it, I dare you). Elizabeth would be a great physician without social media, but the spirit of it reflects direct, engaged, and responsive communication which is great for business, and great for (my) health care.

Related articles:
3 Ways Social Media is Transforming the Doctor-Patient Relationship
Family Physician Can’t Give Away Solo Practice

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About April Sage

April Sage has been involved in the IT industry for over two decades, founding first a technology vocational program, a secondly a bioinformatics company that supported biotech, pharma, and bioinformatic companies in the development of research portals, drug discovery search engines, and other software systems. Currently, April is the Director Healthcare IT for Online Tech, focusing on HIT thought leadership and the impact of HIPAA/HITECH policy on IT infrastructure and systems. April holds a BGS from the University of Michigan, and is currently a member of the University of Michigan’s inaugural 2014 Masters Health Informatics cohort.
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