The Social Media Doctor Is In

All around the world, businesses are getting social. Ford Motor Co. is crowd-sourcing ideas for features in future cars. Shoe seller Zappos shares Facebook “likes” with customers. Toy maker Hasbro ties Facebook videos to its Cranium board game.

Hospitals, doctors, nurses and patients would seem like naturals for social media. But they have been slow to take advantage of it because of well-founded fears of violating patient-privacy laws.

As valuable as social media can be for businesses and employees, they can also be perilous. Workers who love to use wikis and chat for personal communications or YouTube for showing off funny videos, can get in trouble when they start using them for sharing company plans or customer information.

This is particularly true in industries where information sharing is subject to government regulation. Health care is a field where strict patient-confidentiality rules have kept hospitals and doctors from embracing social media.

In a sign of the growing concern about the issue, a Westerly, R.I. hospital, just fired an emergency room doctor for posting information about a patient on her Facebook page, even though she didn’t name the patient. The disciplinary action follows sanctions against doctors and nurses in California and Wisconsin over similar issues, according to the Boston Globe.

Two physicians at Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital recently wrote an opinion piece in The Annals of Internal Medicine that physicians should think of the Internet as the world’s elevator where someone is always listening in.

While Facebook and AOL chat will never be appropriate places for medical discussions, similar technologies can be used in secure online environments. Hospitals and caregivers should be looking at ways to use social media behind a firewall with safeguards that assure accountability.

New software applications permit organizations to use social tools while complying with regulations. For instance, Actiance software archives and logs social content to help enterprises remain compliant with corporate policies and government regulations. With such software packages, auditors can search data from internal wikis, blogs, and chat sessions. They can tell who entered information, when it was entered and who was allowed to view it.

It’s easy to imagine scenarios for using social media in patient care. A doctor who specializes in a relatively rare disease might create a wiki – an online text that anyone can contribute to — meant for her patients and clinicians in other cities. Patients might share links to web sites and research through an online capability similar to Yahoo’s Delicious service. Hospitals might solicit suggestions for improving services through blog comments.

None of those applications are likely to happen using consumer social media. Hospitals, doctors and nurses would worry that they couldn’t protect the identity of patients who posted information or were given passwords to read it.

Patients are understandably reluctant to have details of their health exposed on line. Some are embarrassed about being treated for a sexually-transmitted disease. People with an episodic illness like arthritis or multiple sclerosis often fear that prospective employers wouldn’t hire them..

That’s why federal law tightly regulates sharing of personal health information.

In the U.S., since 2003, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, has required care-givers and hospitals to protect any individually identifiable medical records or payment history. The 2009 HITECH act enabling electronic medical records, also has stiff penalties for unauthorized sharing.

Information-technology research firm Gartner recently said that by the end of 2013, half of all companies will have been forced to produce material from social-media Web sites in response to lawsuits or government investigations. These “e-discovery” procedures are common in lawsuits alleging sexual harassment, age discrimination, insider trading and product liability. A patient lawsuit that documented disclosure of private medical information would leave a doctor or hospital in a weak position to defend against other claims.

So far, worries like those have kept medical care organizations from taking advantage of social media.

But the potential benefits are too great to ignore. Social-business interactions can reveal expertise that wasn’t widely known. Doctors in teaching hospitals frequently invite colleagues to consult on difficult diagnoses. Allowing more online collaboration, with patient approval, might speed the process by casting a wider net. Ad hoc teams could form to fine-tune a treatment plan for a difficult cancer.

A survey of human-resource officers done by my company, IBM, last year, found that 57% of those that said their company had invested in using social media had out-performed their peers. In a growing number of businesses, social networking concepts are fundamental to collaborating with partners and associates and reaching out to customers.

Social networking is too valuable a capability to be left out of the medical care field. Software technology, with the appropriate safegaurds built in, exists today and can help health care providers build out secure scaleable social networks, allowing providers to confidently communicate with clinicians and with patients. They should be doing it.

Dan Pelino is general manager, IBM Healthcare and Life Sciences.

4 replies »

  1. Social media is a very powerful tool nowadays to get yourself, your services and your business known. It’s word of mouth to the millionth power!

  2. Plenty of medical professionals have been doing this sensibly for years–check out Enoch Choi at Palo Alto Medical Foundation or Jeff Livingston at Macarthur OBGYN. But the main reason docs have been slow is because unlike other businesses there’s no massive economic pressure to get onto Facebook, Twitter et al in a systematic way,But it’s clear that it can add huge value to patients

  3. There are many misconceptions and unfounded fears that hold health care providers back from engaging productively in health care social media. Here are a couple of resources that may be of help in kickstarting your organization’s work in this arena: Ed Bennett’s “Found In Cache” which provides a useful inventory of hospital activity and policies governing the use of social media, at http://bit.ly/r5aR4i ; the Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media website http://bit.ly/qm9Kyn [disclosure: I’m a member of the Advisory Board] ; and my own blog, HealthBlawg: http://bit.ly/n9zHEo I work closely with health care organizations in developing social media policies and procedures in order to make the most of these tools while sidestepping the HIPAA and other issues that can bring you down if you’re not careful. I also wrote about starting up these efforts recently at HealthWorks Collective: http://bit.ly/qZizFx