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Patient Engagement and Social Media: Medicine Goes Mobile

Customer engagement is the newest C-suite obsession. Practically every industry can benefit from social media and brand evangelism, but some industries are better equipped than others. How can healthcare — especially EHR vendors — utilize social media for patient engagement?

Social media can be a minefield for any industry — just ask US Airways, Justine Sacco, Amy’s Baking Company, and countless others. However, despite the risks, 79 percent of companies surveyed by the Harvard Business Review are either using or planning to use social media channels to promote their brand, monitor customer trends, or conduct market and product research. Increasingly, this means that companies are engaging with customers via mobile devices. As of 2013, 61 percent of US adults own a smartphone, and mobile social media usage is on the rise — over half of Facebook referral traffic was via mobile devices in January 2014, according to Shareaholic.

As these numbers continue their inevitable, meteoric rise, businesses everywhere are scrambling to optimize their websites, content, and business processes to engage these users. Medicine is no exception, but physicians and healthcare organizations have unique challenges with utilization of social media and/or mobile devices — namely HIPAA.

HIPAA, or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, establishes a number of rules regarding medicine, the most widely known being those concerning privacy. While the legalese is nigh-impenetrable, any identifiable patient information that is electronically transmitted must be done so securely; a violation of any HIPAA privacy rules could mean a fine of up to $50,000 per violation for the provider. It is understandable, then, that many healthcare providers, tech-literate or not, are hesitant to adopt electronic health records or other Medicine/Health 2.0 technologies, even at the cost of patient engagement and Meaningful Use incentives. With providers’ hesitancy, the onus is on Health IT companies to build secure, HIPAA-compliant platforms for patient engagement.

One such platform is HealthCrowd, a patient engagement software provider. Recently, HealthCrowd released the findings of its industry-first SMS pilot program with Healthfirst, a managed care organization. Unlike previous SMS-in-medicine pilots, the HealthCrowd/Healthfirst program concentrated on “two-way SMS,” or actually engaging the patients and eliciting responses instead of just using the medium to communicate one-way. In the program, HealthCrowd discovered that “86 percent of phone numbers supplied by Healthfirst’s member population were actually digital,” and able to receive text messages. HealthCrowd also discovered that the most cost-effective means of communication with these members was mobile messaging. Also, 32 percent of participants were driven to a desired action in a “very short timeframe,” and those members who responded to the text messages were more likely to take the desired action. While these numbers may seem surprising at first, considering the majority of the population surveyed were Medicaid participants, further consideration of the growth of government-backed cell phone service for low-income households means the results aren’t that surprising. Like the rest of America, the Medicaid population is on mobile.

Text messaging is only the beginning. Resources like Webicina, a curated social media site for medical professionals, are connecting providers and ePatients in new and exciting ways. Webicina’s founder, Bertalan Meskó, a MD and PhD, gave a TED Talk on how social media can and will change medicine for the better.

The main hurdle to Dr. Meskó’s vision is a lack of provider education. To combat the lack of knowledge, he has established an online course for medical professionals who want to learn social media best practices; while the course has some flaws, namely translation errors, it is far and away the best free resource on the subject available today. The Social MEDia Course has 16 chapters and 16 tests, each of which take approximately 2.5 hours to complete; by contrast, the American Medical Association guidelines on social media use is just over 350 words, and was last updated in 2011. It’s no wonder that providers have discomfort surrounding the use of social media in their practices.

In short, it’s only a matter of time before providers and healthcare organizations move to utilize social media to increase patient engagement and provider resources as the rest of the business world is already doing. Engaged patients are more likely to follow the advice of their medical professional, keep appointments, seek out new information on their health, and therefore, have better medical outcomes. As American healthcare moves away from a fee-for-service model to one based on performance and physician quality reporting systems (PQRS), engaging patients for better healthcare outcomes will be the best way to secure the highest reimbursements — and potentially save more lives.

Photo Credit: Juhan Sonin under a Creative Commons 2.0 license

Join The Conversation

  • csettles's picture
    Aug 14 Posted 2 years ago csettles

    Thanks for commenting!

    It seems most would rather continue with tried-and-true methods -- especially older providers -- rather than incur the expense of electronically communicating with patients or one another. Between HIPAA concerns and widely publicized issues with the interoperability of electronic health records software systems, it's somewhat less of a surprise that a majority of communications at many offices still takes place via fax. 

    Are your clients younger, or just more tech-savvy? I assume they're at a small practice, and not hospitalists?

  • kwitmer's picture
    Aug 8 Posted 2 years ago kwitmer

    Nice article! I have a few clients in the health and medical arenas and this is always a scary area for them. So far it's been a combination of technology and manual checks and balances.

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