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From: The Rheumatologist, October 2012

How the Mayo Clinic Maximizes Learning Opportunities Through Social Media

by Carol Patton

It was nine o’clock on a Tuesday morning in June 2008. Lee A. Aase, manager of media relations at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., learned of a study involving one of Mayo’s endocrinologists, Victor Montori, MD, that was going to be published that afternoon in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

At 10:20 am, Aase began videotaping an interview with Dr. Montori about the study. By noon, the video was posted on Mayo’s YouTube channel, embedded in its news blog, and e-mailed to journalists. The following day, the Wall Street Journal health blog embedded the video within its story.

After several years of experimenting with social media as a vehicle for disseminating healthcare information, Mayo launched the Center for Social Media in July 2010. Its mission was to expand social media from a public relations and marketing application to a robust communication tool for patient care, research, and education. Since then, the center has surpassed its original goal, evolving into a social media expert for healthcare providers nationwide.

“Our use of social media was an outgrowth of our media relations work,” says Aase, now director of the center.

With 10 employees, the center places content in the path of the interested public. Hundreds of videos showcase physicians offering generic information about diseases or effective treatments or patients discussing their medical condition and inpatient experiences at Mayo.

Everyone seems to benefit. Sharing information is therapeutic for some patients. Online visitors receive updated, accurate information. Even physicians are pleased because their videotaped quotes are never inaccurate or misleading.

“One of the things frustrating for physicians is quotes taken out of context,” he says. “We use flip video cameras and iPhone cameras as a way of capturing the expertise of our physicians instead of hassling them to write blogs for us. It’s relatively painless.”

Keep It Real

Although the center has editorial discretion, Aase says all videos are posted on YouTube in their entirety, creating an authentic viewer experience. Comments are never edited. The same holds true for negative comments posted on Facebook or Twitter.

“If there weren’t negative comments on our Facebook page, then people would say it’s a whitewash, that we’re stripping out all the negative stuff,” says Aase.

Facebook and Twitter are monitored by employees for 12 hours each weekday. On weekends, employees rotate, checking postings several times throughout the day. Although the center encourages visitors to express their opinions, it prevents them from monopolizing Mayo’s Facebook page, he says, adding that most patient issues blow over in a day or two. Developing a long-range perspective is a key part of the center’s strategy.

So is partnering with patients, adds Farris K. Timimi, MD, the center’s medical director.

“For me to say with a straight face that only a physician can have expertise in a patient disease begins to lose credibility,” says Dr. Timimi, also program director for the Advanced Heart Failure and Transplant Fellowship Program at Mayo. “Patients are the living experts of their disease.”

He says the majority of Mayo’s patients live online. He believes that physicians have a moral obligation to participate in online chats, especially considering the low cost of participation and profound scalability of healthcare information. Although the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 applies to healthcare information both on and offline, he says the center trains providers on how to avoid crossing blurred lines between sharing health information and practicing medicine.

Earlier this year, one of Mayo’s transplant cardiologists, Brooks S. Edwards, MD, participated in the center’s Twitter chat that highlighted the importance of organ donation, which coincided with Facebook’s organ donor recruitment campaign. That same day, Mayo released a video of Dr. Edwards on its YouTube channel walking people through the process of changing their status to be an organ donor. The reach and penetration was “incredibly profound,” Dr. Timimi says.

“[Dr. Edwards] had never been an advocate of social media and has become very involved in Twitter,” he says. “The number of frank conversations that occurred in that Twitter chat—how many lives have been changed—really moved Brooks to be a strong advocate of social media participation.”

In May 2012, Mayo rheumatologist John M. Davis III, MD, participated in an ACR sponsored Facebook chat about rheumatoid arthritis. The chat was part of the ACR’s Arthritis Action Month social media program.

Vaidehi R. Chowdhary, MD, a rheumatologist at Mayo, is another recent convert. Last May, she participated in a Facebook chat sponsored by the Lupus Foundation of America and a Twitter chat on arthritis led by Dr. Richard Besser, chief health and medical editor for ABC News.

“This was my first experience,” recalls Dr. Chowdhary. “I was a little nervous...that maybe I wouldn’t be able to answer every question.”

After responding to 284 comments, she hopes to participate in upcoming chats sponsored by the center.

“[Social media] is a good venue to talk about things that apply to all patients,” she says. “It’s definitely worth exploring by every group practice.”

Extended Reach

Using social media successfully is a learned, not innate, skill. The Center for Social Media offers social media guidelines for physicians and Social Media Residency training classes twice a year at each of Mayo’s three locations for any healthcare employee. Likewise, it also formed the Social Media Health Network, a membership group of 120 organizations that share ideas and access Mayo’s training materials.

In the future, Dr. Timimi believes the center will lead the way in social media’s evolution, helping doctors prescribe social media opportunities and tools for patients, such as specific Facebook chats or apps for losing weight.

Until then, the center will continue recreating and inventing social media learning opportunities.

“If you put good content in the hands of [people] online, when they become a patient, they’ll come to you for their medical care,” says Dr. Timimi. “Our obligation as providers is to walk with patients on their online journey.”


Carol Patton is a freelance journalist based in Las Vegas.

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