Using Facebook, Twitter and other social media to change health care

Ten years on, Ian Morrison’s “Hamster Health Care: Time to Stop Running Faster and Redesign Health Care” is still eminently applicable.

In his words:

Across the globe doctors are miserable because they feel like hamsters on a treadmill. They must run faster just to stand still. In … the managed care systems in the United States doctors feel that they have to see more patients to maintain their incomes. But systems that depend on everybody running faster are not sustainable. The answer must be to redesign health care.

Looking at the fallout over the Affordable Care Act, it’s hard not to think that perhaps the system is just too complex and too entrenched to redesign from the top down. The opposite would be organic change from within the industry, patient driven and participatory, from the bottom up.

A strong candidate for bottom-up change is the application of social media to health care. It’s at least worth considering that, appropriately utilized, social media could do something for the doctor-patient relationship akin to what Facebook and Twitter is doing for family, friends, and business relations all over the world.

Ten years ago, Morrison was on to this:

Solutions to hamster health care will come from getting off the wheel, not running faster. Doctors need to redesign their work to meet their patients’ needs within the economic constraints … That means using information technology creatively (particularly the internet) to communicate with patients and manage the process of patient care as part of a fundamental redesign of clinical practice.

I think it’s fair to say that Morrison would heartily endorse doctors using social media to more directly mediate their expertise to patients in a consistent, timely, and cost efficient manner.

I don’t presume to know how, but I have a good idea of what the first step may be: start using. Many physicians and medical students that I know have not yet begun to wade into the Twitter waters or explore blogging. These tools must be engaged with before they are applied. I think there’s reason to believe that the very act of engagement will stimulate ideas for implementation. If big changes in health care are going to be bottom-up, and these social media tools are truly useful, then simple exposure to physicians on the ground may likely instigate much progress.

I’m not saying that doctors should just dive in to applying social media to their practices. I’m simply advocating they set up an account and start poking around. Start following some fellow docs, reading some blogs, and considering setting off with a blog of their own.

The trouble is that damned wheel. Even my medical school friends, who are certainly not yet on the wheel, roll their eyes when I mention Twitter. They dismiss it because it’s one more thing they have to worry about.

How do we get the word out that social media stands to break the cycle rather than give another kick to the wheel?

Aaron J. Stupple is a medical student who blogs at Adjacent Possible Medicine.

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