Paul Rosen, MD, a pediatric rheumatologist, didn’t quite know what to expect. As clinical director of service and operational excellence at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Del., he was about to participate in his first Facebook chat.
Juvenile arthritis was the topic. The chat was scheduled on a weekday afternoon in May, in observance of Arthritis Awareness month, and hosted by the ACR. A transcript of the chat is available online. Because it is his job to improve the patient experience, he believed this would be a good opportunity to check out social media’s impact on healthcare education.
“Our patients are high users of social media,” he says. “I wasn’t sure how many patients would write in. Questions poured in. It was a great response.”
Nemours, a children’s health system, started to reach out to patients through social media about five years ago. After roughly five Facebook chats on a variety of topics, ranging from arthritis to hearing loss, the online communication has helped the healthcare organization accomplish several goals: Overall patient satisfaction scores have improved; the Nemours brand has been exposed to new markets and attracting new patients; and patients and their families are now better informed about serious diseases and treatments.
Dr. Rosen and another rheumatologist—Patience White, MD, professor of medicine and pediatrics at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Services, Washington, D.C.—participated in the chat. Approximately 100 patients and their families posed questions throughout the hour-long session.
“There’s a gap between what people want in terms of accessibility and what we’re providing,” says Dr. Rosen, explaining that patients typically wait for their scheduled appointment to ask healthcare questions. “People just want their questions answered in a quick, easy way. They’re okay with talking to someone who’s not their physician, who’s maybe another physician or an expert.”
Or even a travelling physician. During the chat, Dr. Rosen was driving his car. He called the chat’s moderator, who alternated questions between Dr. White and him. The moderator read questions to him and typed his responses. Dr. White, also vice president of public health at the Arthritis Foundation, logged on to the Facebook chat from her office computer, read the questions, then dictated her answers to an assistant who was sitting beside her.
After the experience, Dr. Rosen is now convinced that physicians need to expand their reach beyond face-to-face patient visits, and that chats are an especially effective approach for communicating with patients in rural or underserved areas.
Dr. Rosen is now convinced that physicians need to expand their reach beyond face-to-face patient visits.
“It made me realize it’s a powerful tool, along with other avenues of social media,” Dr. Rosen says. “We really need to think outside the box and catch up to the rest of society and leverage these technologies for each patient.”
Dr. White would prefer a little more give and take. Besides answering questions, she also wants to find out the ending to each patient’s story—was her advice helpful?
One way to achieve this, she says, might be to offer a series of Facebook chats on the same topic. This way, people who are interested would have more options regarding chat dates and times, can pose more questions during other chats, and also can share results.
She believes more doctors may be inclined to participate if the process was simplified. By having someone handle the connections and technical aspects of the chat and also type their answers, doctors can focus more on the content of their responses rather than the mechanics of the chat, Dr. White says.
“Most people are put off by having to get the technical stuff going,” says Dr. White, adding that she had approximately one to three minutes to answer each question. “But if they had technical support, it can be made easier. Doctors can focus on formulating their answers more quickly and feel more comfortable. If I did this again, I would have the same setup.”
Room for Growth
Although patient questions are being answered, there are many unanswered questions for social media staff. For example, when should chats be conducted? Weekdays or weekends? Day or night? How should they be promoted? How many experts should participate? Do physicians need a brief training session before each chat, or should Nemours continue to offer its one-hour, mandatory webinar covering social media guidelines?
At Nemours, chat topics are selected by the social media and public and media relations teams and promoted on its website, Facebook and Twitter sites, in its e-newsletters, through various health associations, and at press conferences, says Lisa Klueppel, social media manager at Nemours in Jacksonville, Fla.
Although broad topics like prevention and wellness help raise awareness among a large audience, Klueppel says specific topics like juvenile arthritis are more effective for patient acquisition.
Klueppel plans to expand Nemours’ online presence with Google+ Hangouts On Air. The live video chat function enables video conferencing between one host and up to nine guests. She explained that the chat would be broadcast live on Nemours’ Google+ page and advertised as any other online event. Patients can watch the streaming video that may feature panelists or experts in various cities, comment on it, or tell their friends about it since it will be saved as a YouTube video and archived.
However, social media is multidimensional. Besides enhancing patient education, healthcare organizations can also retrieve information from online patients to boost their marketing efforts.
“Social media can be used as a monitoring device,” says Klueppel. “We’re able to see what our patients need, what information they’re looking for, and what conditions, symptoms, and treatment options they’re looking for so we can start to tailor our services to better meet their needs.”
Carol Patton is a freelance journalist based in Las Vegas.