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Can Healthcare’s Immune System Fight Off the Social Media Virus?



In our continuing efforts to bring you many different voices in the Internet and social media marketing world we decided to ask one of the leading experts in the field of social media and healthcare, Greg Matthews of WCG, a few questions about this interesting and complicated corner of social media.

The healthcare field is in a constant struggle regarding patient privacy, HIPAA regulations and more because it is dealing with some of the most personal issues possible. If information about health issues are made public it could impact a person’s life in a myriad ways having potential personal and professional implications.

So how do you reconcile the relatively new open social Internet with a subject as highly personal as healthcare without opening up a veritable Pandora’s box of issues? Well, that’s why we asked Greg to help us out. Here are his insights.

MP: We have been seeing a lot about social media and healthcare issues lately. Could you provide a sort of “State of the Union” for social and the health field?

Greg: When I started working in social media with Humana in 2007 and 2008, the conventional wisdom was that a) social media wasn’t really right for healthcare companies, because they’d have too many data privacy issues to contend with and b) people would never use social media channels to talk about their health issues – health is just too personal a subject. As Al Pacino’s Ricky Roma says in Glengarry Glen Ross, “I subscribe to the law of contrary public opinion… If everyone thinks one thing, then I say, bet the other way… “

The truth is, Ricky would have gotten this one right – because we couldn’t have been much more wrong. Patients flocked to social media almost immediately … first to patient forums like PatientsLikeMe.com (Jamie Heywood’s brilliant brainchild), then to blogs (There are some wonderful ePatient blogs out there; see Kerri Sparling’s SixUntilMe, Jenny Prokopy’s ChronicBabe or Kelly Young’s RA Warrior as examples), and then ultimately to facebook, twitter and youtube. In fact, Google tells us that health videos rank ahead of both celebrity and food videos in terms of overall views.

The next thing that we were wrong about was that doctors – who are perceived to be incredibly resistant to change – would never use social media professionally. Wrong again. The number of blogging and tweeting doctors has completely exploded over the last two years. I’m now personally monitoring the online activities of almost 2,000 doctors – and that’s just scratching the surface.

If I had to sum it up, I guess I’d say that in 2012, pretty much every part of the healthcare world knows that social media is important. However, with very few exceptions, our ability to use it to a) help people be healthier or b) be measurably more effective as businesses are in a nascent stage.

MP: Which areas of healthcare are embracing social and which are standing back a bit?

Greg: There is no question that patients/consumers (depending on your perspective) are leading the way. That’s not really a surprise given that they’ve also driven massive changes in other industries. Consequently, the companies in the healthcare universe who touch consumers most closely (think Johnson and Johnson and Accu-Chek) have been fast followers. The rest of the industry have been a lot slower to adopt, for a few reasons.

First, most of the players in the healthcare system are heavily regulated (rightfully so) in terms of when and how they interact with other parts of the system. What that means is that they do have a greater risk in terms of engagement than other kinds of companies. But the regulatory climate – while often cited as THE reason that healthcare companies have been reluctant to engage – is only one reason, and I don’t think it’s the biggest one.

Companies in regulated industries have to adopt a strategy of risk mitigation that is deep in the core of their business. And it’s the culture and tradition that are associated with risk aversion that I think is a much bigger roadblock than the regulations themselves.

Finally, healthcare is one industry that doesn’t really operate on a market economy … which means that the companies in it have never really had to care what the end consumer thought. That’s beginning to change at an accelerated pace with the voices of patients getting ever-louder, and the spectre of health reform on the horizon.

MP: Could you provide some success stories and some train wreck ones as well?

Greg: There are a ton of really nice success stories out there … a few that come to mind:

CureTogether, a community founded by Alex Carmichael and her husband Daniel Reda, met a need for patients to be able to crowdsource their chronic disease treatments (and lifestyles) at scale – and in the process, created a new model for researching those conditions. Roche was the first major pharma company to publish their social media guidelines to the world, committing to engaging with their various stakeholders in very different way. That was a big move.

Sanofi is in the second year of crowdsourcing solutions to diabetes in the Data Design Diabetes challenge. It’s been a terrific way for them to leverage the best possible thinking in the marketplace to help diabetes patients. And the Mayo Clinic has created a Center for Social Media that’s focused on helping hospitals and healthcare providers to leverage social media for better patient care and more successful businesses.

And I don’t know about train wrecks. There have definitely been some learning experiences in the healthcare industry. One of the truly notable ones (I think it’s actually made its way into some Marketing textbooks as a case study) was the Motrin Moms controversy. And it really did have a happy ending eventually – in that the company involved was able to change its practices to be more responsive to their consumers. [Note: Roche and Sanofi are WCG clients]

MP: Are actual doctors getting involved? Are there certain kinds of practitioners that do this or is it more about personality v speciality?

Greg: Doctors are getting involved by the thousands … and the explosion is just beginning. I’ve been watching physicians’ use of social media for the last few years, and can tell you that in 2011 the numbers started the proverbial “hockey stick” growth.

We’ve created a series of interviews with doctors who are leading the way in this space (http://w.cg/MDLPosts) and three twitter lists full of tweeting MDs. (https://twitter.com/chimoose/lists).

At this point, I think that the leading docs are defined less by their specialty and more by two factors: First, how thoughtful are they about the ways that medicine and healthcare are changing? Second, how important is it to their practice to have a direct connection to their patients? If you’re interested in learning more about these folks, all of the MDigitalLife doctors are great to follow. You can find their twitter accounts in the MDigitalLife Twitter List and connect to their blogs through the MDigitalLife Google Reader Bundle.

To quote Dr. Bryan Vartabedian, one of the leading thinkers on physicians’ use of social media:

“When I think about the doctors around me, I think about the remarkable mindshare that exists. Each is unique in the way they think. Each sees disease and the human condition differently. But for many their brilliance and wisdom is stored away deep inside. They are human silos of unique experience and perspective. They are of a generation when someone else decided if their ideas were worthy of discussion. They are of a generation when it was understood that few ideas are worthy of discussion. They are the medical generation of information isolation.” (From “Doctors and the Permission to Speak” – published in December, 2011 on 33charts.com)

MP: What are the legal concerns and how real are they?

Greg: Every participant in our healthcare system has a different set of regulations that make all kinds of public interactions more risky than they’d be for, say, a consumer electronics company. For Pharma/Biotech/Device companies, the primary consideration is around how they market their products (to both physicians and patients) according to the FDA. For doctors and hospitals, the primary issues are around patient privacy and a definition of what qualifies as “medical advice.” For insurance companies, it’s mostly about the privacy and security of member data.

All of those issues are real and legitimate – and carry potentially serious penalties when they’re violated. HOWEVER, they’re also used as a crutch by just about everyone. The fact of the matter is, there are lots of things that healthcare companies CAN and SHOULD be doing to interact more effectively with their stakeholders that in no way carry regulatory risk. The focus needs to be on what they CAN do; not what they CAN’T.

According to Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson, doctors have an ethical responsibility to share what they know online. And I believe that responsibility pertains to every player in the health system as well.

MP: What are the greatest areas for growth and how can social media improve the delivery of healthcare in the future?

Greg: That’s a huge question! I happen to agree with the hypothesis that Dr. Eric Topol makes in his incredible book, “The Creative Destruction of Medicine.” The biggest change in healthcare in the years to come is going to be driven by patients’ ability to collect, store and share-at-will all kinds of data about themselves … to essentially create a “digital self” that can be used to improve the accuracy of diagnoses, the effectiveness of treatments, and the role of prevention. And that data, in my mind, pertains to social media as well … because understanding people’s social interactions can be as important as understanding their biometrics. So social analytics related to health and well-being can also help to redefine the way that medicine is practiced and health can be achieved.

Furthermore, I think that lots of enterprising companies, many of whom are coming from outside the healthcare space, are bringing consumer-focused design thinking to the problem of creating health. The work that (WCG Client) QualcommLife is doing to help connect patients’ healthy behaviors to their actual health outcomes is a huge step in the right direction.

And finally, I think that, after decades of slowly being shut out of the system, doctors are using digital and social media to regain their voice and to return the doctor-patient relationship to the place it belongs … at the very center of the healthcare system. As hard as the system may try to reject social media, there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s here to stay, and that it’ll eventually help people to be healthier as a result.

Greg Matthews is a leader in WCG’s healthcare practice. He’s been helping fortune 500/global healthcare organizations to effectively and responsibly use social media for 5 years. For the past two of those years, Greg has been studying physicians’ online behavior. The resulting interviews in the #MDigitalLife series can be found here.