Thursday 22 February 2018

Health Digital Check-Up: Physicians and Social Media

This week’s Check-Up comes from Edelman client Kaiser Permanente and was authored by Vince Golla, digital media and syndication director for Kaiser Permanente’s Brand Strategy, Communications and Public Relations organization.

There are two time-tested ways to get a doctor’s attention: (a) bring facts, lots of ‘em, and good ones, and (b) publish them in a peer-reviewed medical journal.

Dr. Ted Eytan and four of his colleagues at Kaiser Permanente did both last week, publishing in The Permanente Journal a piece, “Social Media and the Health System,” which makes the case for thoughtful use of social media to enhance health care delivery — or how the absence of social media use could detract from an effective medical practice.

Kaiser Permanente has been a leader in health information technology for more than 50 years, the authors note from the start. Cofounder Sidney Garfield, MD, always positioned a computer at the center of his “hospital of the future” sketches he made in the early 1960s. The authors position social media as the same prominence in the discussion of 21st century medicine. Within the first four paragraphs, the gauntlet is thrown down: “Although there are risks for health systems to participate in social media, there are also risks in not participating. In a patient-centered model of health care, absence from social networks that are important to patients might lead to a gap between patients and clinicians.”

A Social Foundation

The authors first explain that social networking isn’t a widget or a box, but rather the assembling of thousands or millions of people electronically to share information and conduct business – old hat to you and me, perhaps, but not necessarily so in the medical community. They then note something many of you might not know: The American Medical Association barred doctors and health care systems were advertising their wares until the mid-1970s; thus, many such systems are a bit immature as it regards public relations and marketing. They talk about the importance of socking away “good news” to build a brand’s reputation and gird it against the inevitable bad news days, but then add a 21st century twist – they note that the mainstream media doesn’t make all the news any longer. Moral of the story? Your patient is not only a customer, but potentially also a content creator about your practice – good news, bad news, or a little of both.

Healthy Examples

Opportunities – and great examples – abound for successful use of social media in health care. When H1N1 loomed in 2009, the Centers for Disease Control took to Twitter to rapidly share information with caregivers and the public. More than 1.3 million followers later, the CDC is among largest and most trusted health care social media franchises. If the federal government can be successful at this, why can’t everyone else? In turn, numerous health care organizations and practitioners are using social media for everything from prevention to the creation of support and information-sharing groups for people with chronic diseases.

And Risks? They Have a Few

A recent legal review of social media and health care noted, quite aridly, that “in the health care context, complex situations can arise.” No needs to emphasize that with health care practitioners who recognize and absolutely critical importance of privacy and propriety. What challenges them is the inherently improprietous nature of social media. HIPAA breaches on Twitter have cost people their jobs; slams on service ranking sites have led to libel suits; Facebook conversations about others’ health care have led to litigation. Give everyone a social media bullhorn, and the sound can be not only cacophonous, but downright perilous to the practice of health care. The authors note that their organization, Kaiser Permanente has a wide-ranging social media policy (PDF) that acknowledges this reality and manages the risks involved.


The authors – four physicians, and the organization’s digital media and syndication director – conclude that social media is here to stay, and patients actively participating in their care are here to stay. Thus they write: “For health care systems and physician groups with a tradition of innovation and responsible growth, organized social media participation can extend the benefits of excellent communication with patients and potential consumers to enhance their relationship with us and promote achievement of their life goals through optimal health.”

Contributing authors to the piece are Kaiser Permanente physicians Dr. Rahul Parikh (@docrkp), a pediatrician in Walnut Creek, Calif., and Dr. Jeffrey Benabio (@dermdoc), a dermatologist in San Diego; Dr. Sara Stein (@sarasteinmd), a psychiatrist and obesity specialist from Cleveland; and Vince Golla (@vincegolla), digital media and syndication director for Kaiser Permanente’s Brand Strategy, Communications and Public Relations organization. Dr. Eytan is a director with The Permanente Federation, the umbrella organization that represents the national interests of Kaiser Permanente’s 15,000 physicians.

The spring edition of The Permanente Journal is available online now. Its print run of 30,000 copies will be available Feb. 27.

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