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My Glucose Is High! Can You Tweet Me Right, Doc?

September 6, 2009
by Mark Hagland
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Just a couple of weeks ago, a USA Today health blog reported on physicians, hospitals, and health agencies that have begun to deliver medicine via Twitter tweets. Googling this article (and how did society even function, pre-Google, anyway…??!), I wasn’t able to find the illustrative details supporting the blog’s report, but I can tell you that I was fascinated by the possibilities that were mentioned in an article the blog referenced in Telemedicine and e-Health, including “disaster alerting and response,” “diabetes management (blood glucose tracking),” “providing smoking cessation assistance,” “shift-bidding for nurses and other healthcare professionals,” and six other items.

On the patient care side, it seems to me that Twitter might actually be ideally suited to physician-patient communications regarding such issues as glucose monitoring, except for the (rather large) issue of patient information privacy and safety. But even that issue could be dealt with, I think, if, say, for example, physicians and their patients could agree on code names/screen names for specific Twitter purposes. I’d have to think this through further, but at first glance, somehow the idea of using an electronic communications format that was designed for very brief bursts of intermittent communication, would seem to me to dovetail rather well with physicians’ and patients’ interests and concerns around clinical follow-up messaging. For example, apart from reimbursement issues, individual physicians’ greatest concern to date with the prospect of secure messaging with patients has seemed to be the fear that patients would write them long, tangled e-mails that the physicians would then have to expend time and energy responding to. On the other hand, if the message is simply “My glucose level is 140, following breakfast,” and perhaps the appropriate response is, “Please check in with Nurse Call Center,” that is exactly the kind of timely, succinct kind of message that could be successful in a Twitter format. And of course, such messaging could take place between mid-level professionals and patients, thus further streamlining processes for all concerned. Again, privacy, security, etc. issues would have to be worked out very carefully, but it’s a concept at least worth looking at.

And with regard to the non-clinical item mentioned above, “shift-bidding for nurses and other healthcare professionals,” that’s an even more obvious kind of easy win-win, I think. Again, the timeliness of Twitter is part of its appeal. If, say, a group of, say, 50 nurses were in the same “pool” of potential staffers for, say, next Tuesday’s 6 AM to 4 PM shift, wouldn’t it make tremendous sense to activate some kind of Twitter-based communication tree around staffing?

And as many of these new social media begin to mature out of their infancy stages, I think it will be inevitable that hospitals, physician groups, and other patient care organizations will find ways to leverage their capabilities in healthcare. It’s not too early to at least begin exploring. After all, who says Twitter has to be limited to people telling their friends they’re having a caffe latte at their local coffeehouse?

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