Facebook Chats Link Healthcare Providers with Patients

Last May, three rheumatologists, a nurse practitioner, and two social workers at the Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) in New York City attended a 30-minute session covering the dos and don’ts of Facebook chats. The hospital’s public relations and social media department staff was prepping them for a Facebook chat on “Lupus and Medicine” that would start after the briefing.

“I didn’t have a Facebook page, I didn’t even know what a Facebook chat was,” says Jane Salmon, MD, who was one of the participants and is director of the SLE and APS Center of Excellence at HSS and professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College. “What surprised me was how simple it was.”

What surprised everyone was that approximately 250 people turned out for the chat, asking more than 65 questions. It proved so successful that another one focusing on lupus and pregnancy was conducted in October.

This past year, almost 87,000 people have participated in the hospital’s webinars, read its blog posts and Twitter feed, posted questions on its Facebook page, blog or twitter, sites, or watched its YouTube channel. Hungry for the latest information, they want—even demand—solid answers to their health questions. To meet their expectations, the hospital has begun launching Facebook chats, enabling people to connect with a variety of healthcare professionals who can address real concerns and real questions in real time.

Initially, Dr. Salmon expected participants to share complex, long descriptions of their frustrations regarding the side effects of their medicines. She was concerned about her ability to offer “satisfying answers” that would help them better manage their care and enhance, not interfere, with medical advice prescribed by their doctors.

“It’s helpful for patients to feel the freedom to seek advice because they’re going to do it even if we don’t give them permission,” she says, adding that to avoid patient confidentiality issues, participants only used their first names. “What was unique about our chat was that it included professionals from multiple disciplines. Each of us hears questions differently and these different responses to the same question help patients.”

She believes such chats underscore the value of rheumatologists. Some patients are treated by nephrologists, dermatologists, or hematologists—but not rheumatologists—since diseases like lupus can impact multiple systems. Facebook chats can help rheumatologists take ownership of specific diseases like lupus, she says, and by being accessible online to patients afflicted with these diseases, patients will understand they need to be observed by a rheumatologist.

Growing Pains

Since this was the hospital’s first Facebook chat, each participating healthcare provider was given an instruction booklet. It offered short responses to frequently asked questions, related website links, and basic tips, such as how long their answers should be, how to keep them brief, language to use, and to identify the person they’re responding to so people know when their question is being answered, explains Elyse Bernstein, senior manager of public relations and social media at HSS, who developed the booklet.

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