Issue 19 / 8 November 2010

ONE of the big challenges facing the health sector in the brave new digital world is how to best use social media and other technologies to engage with patients.

In recent months, I’ve written about US surgeons tweeting live from the operating theatre and about an Australian doctor who got into trouble for making disparaging remarks about patients on Facebook.

When you look at such cases, it’s easy to focus on the negatives, such as the undeniable legal and privacy issues, but that can obscure the many potential benefits social media offer to patients and health care providers.

In the US, it’s pretty much standard practice now for hospitals to use Twitter and Facebook to engage with their communities and build networks between professionals.

Of course, some of the impetus behind such moves is commercial. In the competitive, highly privatised US market, hospitals are keen to promote their services by any means possible.

But it’s not just that.

The prestigious Mayo Clinic uses its Twitter account (@MayoClinic, if you want to check it out) to promote public health messages and research findings to its more than 90 000 followers, as well as to advertise jobs and continuing medical education.

The Clinic also has a presence in the virtual world of Second Life and is looking at developing smart phone apps based on its research.

Mayo has now established a social media centre to train other hospitals in the use of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and the like.

Perth emergency physician Mike Cadogan, one of this country’s leading new media practitioners, believes Australian providers are well behind the US in taking advantage of such technology.

Late last year, he examined social media use by 935 Australian hospitals only to find it was practically non-existent.

His survey identified a grand total of three hospital blogs, two Facebook accounts and one Twitter account.

Since then, a number of medical colleges and GP networks have embraced the technology, he says, though hospitals are still lagging behind.

Although the benefits for patients are clear, in terms of improved access to information about services and health more generally, hospitals here often find it hard to see past the risks, Cadogan says.

Yes, engaging in genuine two-way communication with patients can lead to public airing of grievances, but hospitals and other health care providers are burying their heads in the sand if they believe that is not already happening.

“I feel it is less dangerous to have a social media presence than not to have one,” Cadogan says.

“If you ignore it, there will still be the 25 negative stories out there. But if you get involved you can make sure there are 25 positive ones as well.”

Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer. She has worked for Melbourne’s The Age and contributed to publications including the BMJ, The Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald. She is also a former news and features editor with Australian Doctor. Her book, Making girls and boys, on the science of sex and gender, will be published by UNSW Press early next year.

Posted 8 November 2010

POSTSCRIPT: Michael Cadogan and colleagues are currently updating their list of Australian hospitals and other health care organisations with a social media presence. You can provide information on this site.

One thought on “Jane McCredie: Face up to a Twitter world

  1. Semiretired anaesthetist says:

    The best information for any patient comes from their GP. Americans do not have that same “gatekeeper”. Has anyone tried to sift through the enormous amount of medical information supplied on the internet?
    Google sleep apnoea, and it is impossible to easily find a reputable centre for chiropractic “drivel”.
    Why add another layer, to wit twitter???

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