The Twitter Revolution inside our hospitals

Is there a place for social media in the health care system?

Last week on Grey’s Anatomy, the doctors danced once again with the dangers of love and death. Dr. McSteamy took his wife, Dr. Grey, out of Alzheimer’s clinical trials because he wanted his love-life and work separate. Meanwhile, in a quadruple bypass surgery, Dr. Bailey was live-tweeting. Dr. Webber, Chief of Surgery, scolded Bailey for being unprofessional. Bailey defended herself by pointing out how the tweeting would allow outside medical students to follow a surgery uncommonly witnessed, and she exited with lips pouting. Later, in another complicated surgery, witty banter and schoolyard-winks over the operating table turned quickly — as they often do — to flatline-beeps and spontaneous hemorrhaging. The patient needed a transfusion within three hours. The team had looks of despair until tweets from a nearby hospital announced they had the transfusion. The operation was eventually successful, and Dr. Webber overcame his distaste for Twitter, embracing it as a hand-in-hand tool for surgery.

Although the storyline is purely fictional, hospitals’ recent turn to Twitter is real. Many hospitals are turning to social media to bridge the gaps in staff-patient communication. There are three important benefits to this change.

1. When patients need to see their doctors, the onus is on them to get an appointment, remember the appointment, go to the appointment, and ask follow-up questions. The time that process takes can be dangerous for patients who may be oblivious to critical conditions. This threat can be avoided when patients simply tweet their doctors, like at Sarasota Memorial Hospital, where more and more patients are learning to use Twitter to get the most out of their care. Physicians at Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center even keep tabs on patients through Facebook so that they are notified by patients of their recovery.

2. As in Grey’s Anatomy, doctors may tweet during surgeries to answer medical questions from other patients. Like Dr. Webber, some people are concerned that tweeting will divert surgeons’ focus. But an operating team rotates. One surgeon may be free while others work, and that surgeon can occupy his or her time by answering questions. In March 2009, doctors in a real-time brain surgery at Henry Ford Hospital tweeted to more than 1900 people to answer questions. Twitter has become a great resource for medical students and an informational stream for the public.

3. There are real-time crises, like when a transfusion is needed, when Twitter may come to the rescue. In August 2009, a chemical spill hospitalized more than 50 people, with two in critical condition. New Bedford’s Southcoast Hospital staff attending to these patients tweeted daily updates on each victim’s condition, or if discharged, their treatments. The tweets also included patient information like phone numbers, helping family and friends contact the victims.

Nonetheless, there are still many hospitals reluctant to pick up social media as a communications tool, since they think such practice is a breach of patient confidentiality. Moreover, hospitals need to safeguard their public image, as former patients may publicly criticize poor hospital service through social media.

But one hospital has fully embraced change. The Mayo Clinic, located in Rochester, Minn., serves as the largest not-for-profit group practice in the world. Their philosophy is “the patients’ needs come first.” And indeed they do. Mayo Clinic has opened a Center for Social Media which will train health organizations to use Twitter, Youtube, and Facebook through conferences and workshops — called “Tweetcamp” — so that they can communicate with patients and the public like never before. The use of social media has helped eliminate inefficiencies like wait-time, insufficient doctor-patient interaction, and lack of public health education, all of which are vital to preventive care. The lack of preventive care can lead to expensive urgent care, like surgery and high-risk drugs. These costly procedures burden our health care system financially, and the solution lies in reforming hospitals. Mayo Clinic will shepherd health organizations into the Twitter generation, when care can come to you in a tweet’s time.