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Just a Tweet Away

April 27, 2009
by Kate Huvane Gamble
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Think social media tools like Twitter and YouTube have nothing to do with a hospital CIO's strategic plan? Think again

Will Weider

Will Weider

The social media revolution has hit hospitals. Across the United States, a growing number of healthcare organizations are leveraging Web 2.0 tools to improve staff communication, recruit staff for research, facilitate networking and build the hospital's brand.

According to Ed Bennett, director of Web Strategy at the Baltimore-based University of Maryland Medical System, more than 100 hospitals have created YouTube channels and set up accounts on Twitter. With Twitter, a micro-blogging service, hospitals can link to educational podcasts, print or video news stories, and blogs written by physicians and C-suite executives. Users can sign up to learn about medical topics, obtain directions and information about hospital events, and register for RSS feeds. Some organizations are even using tools like Twitter internally to discuss IT implementations.

Gwen Darling, an Internet marketing consultant at Gwen Darling Consulting, LLC (Fayetteville, Ark.) and HCI blogger (http://www.healthcare-informatics.com/gwen_darling), says she sees enormous potential for social media in hospitals. “You're taking technology and social interaction and marrying the two in a really innovative way. I think it's very exciting, and I think we're going to see healthcare IT embracing all the resources that are out there.”

Not sold yet? Consider the success some organizations have achieved with social media tools.

  • University of Maryland Medical Center says its surgical Webcasts generate 5,000 views per month and are consistently mentioned as one of its best patient education tools.

  • Medical University of South Carolina provides Twitter feeds for news conferences and has created more than 450 podcasts. In less than a year, its site traffic has grown approximately 600 percent.

There clearly is a demand for information, and social media is one tool that can help hospitals maximize that potential, says Darling. She says she expects the trend to grow as CIOs become more familiarized with these emerging technologies. “It's going to become part of the fabric of who we are, just like cell phones and text messaging,” she says.

The new communication

Perhaps the most common motivation for Web 2.0 is to improve communication. As CIO of two organizations, Affinity Health System and Ministry Health Care, Will Weider travels frequently, which can make it difficult to stay in touch with his IT staffs (Affinity, a three-hospital system based in Menasha, Wis., is a partner of Ministry, a 13-hospital system headquartered in Milwaukee). For communication, Weider uses both Twitter and Yammer - an internal version of the tool - to send and receive updates.

However, Weider points out, it isn't just about learning the status of an implementation; it's also about relating on a personal level. “I don't want them just to know what our strategic plan is or what our IT plan is. People like to work with people, and so this is a mechanism of letting my personality show, along with what we're trying to accomplish, as a healthcare organization and as an IT organization.”

Weider's staffs use Yammer to discuss anything from projects they are working on to observations from articles. Through this “free-flowing” communication, Weider says, individuals often identify ways they can help each other that may not have surfaced otherwise. “There are these synergies between groups that we didn't realize were there. That's something that I think we're really starting to try to tackle with social media.”
John Halamka, M.D.

John Halamka, M.D.

Some might argue that e-mail is sufficient for staying in touch with employees, and that social media is just another obligation for already busy executives. But Weider, who receives hundreds of e-mails every day, says he can better manage his time with sites like Twitter by more quickly sorting through messages. By limiting posts and direct messages to 140 characters or fewer, the site forces users to communicate as efficiently as possible.

“An e-mail requires you to address it. There's a bunch of etiquette, so you limit yourself to the number of messages you send and read in a day,” he says. “With something like Twitter or Yammer, it's easier because the information just kind of flows across your screen. It's really simple to skim through hundreds of messages in a very short amount of time. And that's an important aspect of what we're learning. We have to make communication as low of a burden as possible.”

Getting the message out

For John Halamka, M.D., CIO at Boston-based Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, the strongest appeal of social media is the potential to “democratize an organization.” In addition to having accounts on Twitter (among other sites), both Halamka and Beth Israel CEO Paul Levy post daily blogs. “We're really connected to every single employee in the entire organization. People feel no separation,” says Halamka. “There are no hierarchal boundaries. Social networking is a simple way to really bring internal communication, at no cost - zero cost - to a whole new level.”

That, says Darling, is where the concept of social media presents the greatest benefit to healthcare organizations. “If you had to pick one thing that summed up all the beauty of the social media tools, it's the accessibility of people that normally you can't reach directly,” she says, “Because the gatekeepers are gone.”

Members of the surgical staff at Henry Ford Hospital (Detroit) send out messages through Twitter providing updates during a robot-assisted surgery performed on a 60-year-old patient. Tweets were sent throughout the procedure to patients, medical students and doctors

Members of the surgical staff at Henry Ford Hospital (Detroit) send out messages through Twitter providing updates during a robot-assisted surgery performed on a 60-year-old patient. Tweets were sent throughout the procedure to patients, medical students and doctors

Well, almost all the gatekeepers. Twitter does have limitations in place to help users control the number of people who can contact them directly. The site is set up so that once an account is created, users can search for people by name and “follow” them, gaining access to that person's page. The person they are following immediately receives notification, and is given the option to follow that person as well. Only when two parties are following each other can they exchange direct messages.

For executives, Twitter offers the ability to convey information - albeit in small, manageable increments - instantaneously, to a large audience. While attending the Wisconsin eHealth Care Quality and Patient Safety Board meeting in Madison, Weider kept his organization updated on what presenters were saying just by sending a few Tweets.

Similarly, after Halamka attended a meeting in which several policy issues were discussed, he blogged about it, figuring he would reach a broader audience than by sending a bulk e-mail. His blog feeds into his Twitter account, which grabs the first 100 or so characters and links back to his blog for the rest.

Networking 2.0

Halamka and his colleagues at Harvard have found another way to leverage social media tools: recruiting for research projects.

At Harvard, a networking site was created to house all of the publications that have been written by the 18,000-member faculty. The site, says Halamka, organizes papers by topic, but also adds a networking component. “So you can say, ‘I need a medical informatics guy and a genomics guy and a person who's willing to collaborate and teach.’ And it puts your team together for you. That's pretty powerful.”

The site, which is public, demonstrates a use of social media that Halamka expects to gain ground in other academic medical centers. “This transparency and this willingness to connect have so many benefits,” he says.

Finally, another practical use of Web 2.0 tools among healthcare executives is networking and recruiting through sites like LinkedIn and Plaxo. These sites enable users to accumulate industry contacts, making them invaluable resources for those looking to fill or obtain a job, says Darling. Candidates looking for positions can see if the hospital or even the CIO is on Twitter, and follow them to learn about the culture and personalities at that organization. “It really gives you an insider view,” she says.

The same goes for hospital executives who are recruiting for a staff position. For instance, if a CIO has identified a possible candidate through LinkedIn, he or she can, “learn a lot about a person or an organization by just taking the time to do the research and see where and how they're connected,” says Darling.

Looking ahead

As Web 2.0 technology evolves, many believe both healthcare organizations and vendors will continue to alter their strategies. “I think, more and more, you're going to see social media concepts built into enterprise applications like EHRs and ERPs,” says Weider. “I think we'll see more collaboration and ability for users to contribute content. We're kind of on the front end of that, and getting exposed to it now is going to help us take advantage of that.”

As a CIO, Weider says these tools play a key role in his leadership strategy. He listens to podcasts while he travels to stay abreast of the latest technologies and procedures. “I try to be an early adopter of these things,” he says. “I learn about what's cool out on the Internet and I go back home and try things out, and increasingly, a lot of it has application in my work life.”

For Halamka, the CIO role is about developing and constantly maintaining a successful strategy, and that requires a level of communication that goes beyond traditional methods. “Whenever I see a CIO who just huddles in their office and does e-mail, I think, that's not going to work,” he says. “Being a CIO these days is a whole new level. You have to have technical expertise, absolutely. But you also have to be able to interact with people and you have to have a level of communication that didn't exist 10 years ago. Embracing social media, for me, has really facilitated that.”

Healthcare Informatics 2009 May;26(5):30-36

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