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Medical Industry Takes Notice of Social Media


Tim Morton

Most companies recognize that social media have become established as viable business tools. Many leaders are using sites like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn to connect to their customers, recruit followers, and promote their services in real time. But the opportunity to connect the dots and utilize social media in a safe and meaningful way has yet to be fully realized. Whoever gets there first has the opportunity to revolutionize and forever change the medical industry.

The Current Situation

Social media sites for the medical industry range from broad, open platforms to niche, narrowly concentrated forums. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are broad platforms for individuals and corporations alike to broadcast experiences and opinions large and small. CancerDoc, HealthLine, and RevolutionHealth are more narrowly targeted places for rapidly communicating and connecting to those who are sharing similar experiences, communicating information, and sharing ideas amongst patients and medical industry peers. Expert Q&A sites, such as WebMD and AskDrWiki, are popular with patients who can find credible answers to their health-related questions. Physician networks (e.g. Sermo and Ozmosis) serve as “virtual water coolers” where physicians can collaborate in real time.

But no matter what portal is being used by patient or provider, the single most beneficial aspect of social media is the collaboration enabled by the openness of vast numbers. Most are trying to get their message out, educate, inform, and simply share. The portals themselves, empowered by the strength of their members, are positioning themselves as the source of true, real-time data and insight. Many healthcare facilities use social media to crowdsource, or basically ask for input from users to help develop or improve products and services quickly and efficiently. Others are enabling real-time learning through podcasts of surgeries, which medical students can attend remotely.

In 2010 specifically, we saw a significant jump in medical companies utilizing social media tools. The Mayo Clinic has gained more than 33,000 Facebook fans in a little more than a year. The Mayo “wall” is filled with patients’ thanks, interviews, advice, industry news, and nearly 150 videos. Its presence in this space has strengthened the Mayo name as a thought leader in medical care and innovation.

Future Opportunities

While all this is important to building relationships and brands, these building blocks could be the source for more revolutionary advancements. Over time, the intimate knowledge of a contributor, a regional demographic, or an international group of sufferers could be used as proactive triggers for action. Imagine a device that collects signs of your general well-being, then the data from this blends with your Facebook postings on location, time, diet, and feeling while aggregating information from other users and facilities. When linked to your medical facility and medication status, your pharmacy, your caregiver, or your gym could generate guidance and suggestions, which are sent back to you daily. If a hazardous situation is suspected by auto-analysis of the data, then this could directly alert your doctor to provide personal, quick advice and instructions. The potential to use social media and connected, aware devices for well-being and preventative care is huge, as are the possibilities for predicting and tracking patterns in health globally.

Social media offer unique opportunities for scalable interaction and collaboration, a key reason medical and lifestyle device manufacturers have much opportunity ahead of them. By developing products that become part of the user’s daily lives (think how important your smartphone is to you now), manufacturers will find themselves building a loyal customer base that is not only using their device, but is also interacting with them and providing unparalleled insight into their habits in real time.

Nike is one company that has been quick to the punch. The NikePlus Running Monitor is an application that meshes telehealth devices with social media, monitoring and posting running information on Facebook. All of this tracking and communication serves as a great promoter of the manufacturer, as it’s advertised every time the user posts a status update.

Despite all the progress, challenges remain for medical companies when diving into social media. It remains a very new horizon for an industry that faces hurdles posed by the traditions of the medical and insurance industries. Companies who are agile and able to pivot likely will be the winners. It’s easy to imagine Google as the CDC’s biggest information source in the future, aggregating and reporting clusters of users searching for key disease symptoms through an app portal or tweeting about illnesses. Used as tools for triggers, social media can take the temperature of societal health, allowing the medical community to watch population density or pollution patterns unfold.

If device manufacturers and the medical community figure out how to harness and leverage the power of people’s desire to connect and share, they could achieve groundbreaking contributions to healthcare and the connected world as a whole in the coming years.

Tim Morton,

design director,

Product Development Technologies,

Lake Zurich, Ill.

Journal Venues for Safety and Quality-Improvement Publications

Table 1 Tim Morton

Table 1

The message is clear: Conducting business as usual is no longer tenable, nor the “right thing to do” for our patients. In a recent survey of departments of medicine chairs, Staiger et al summarize: “Top-performing academic institutions have recognized that quality improvement/patient safety (QI/PS) activities, leading to improved and measurable patient outcomes, are imperative for strategic survival.”1

Long before this report, the Society of General Internal Medicine’s Academic Hospitalist Task Force provided a framework to document the scholarship for promotion in academic medical centers and to document improvement activities.2 Since then, major academic institutions have incorporated such principles to support academic promotion.

Table 1 (see p. 6) provides venues for publication to advance the science of safety and QI; each is Medline-indexed. The list is not exhaustive and is meant to serve as a starting point of reference. We have not included many other excellent clinical journals that publish QI and patient safety work. When conducting improvement studies, we encourage hospitalists to use the Standards for Quality Improvement Reporting Excellence (SQUIRE) guidelines for publication of quality-improvement articles.3,4,5

Enjoy a new era in academic medical centers.

Adolfo Peña, MD,


Saint Joseph Hospital,

London, Ky.;

Benjamin Taylor, MD, MPH,

chief quality officer,

University Hospital,

The University of Alabama at Birmingham,

SGIM Academic Hospitalist Task Force member;

Pat Patrician, RN, PhD,

senior scholar,

Birmingham VA Quality Scholars Program;

Carlos A. Estrada, MD, MS,

senior scholar,

Birmingham VA Quality Scholars Program


  1. Staiger TO, Wong EY, Schleyer AM, Martin DP, Levinson W, Bremner WJ. The role of quality improvement and patient safety in academic promotion: results of a survey of chairs of departments of internal medicine in North America. Am J Med. 2011;124:277-280.
  2. Society of General Internal Medicine (SGIM) Academic Hospitalist Task Force. Quality Portfolio. SGIM website. Available at: Accessed May 3, 2011.
  3. Davidoff D, Batalden P, Stevens D, Ogrinc D, Mooney S. Publication guidelines for quality improvement in health care: evolution of the SQUIRE project. Qual Saf Health Care. 2008;17 Suppl 1:i3-i9.
  4. Ogrinc G, Mooney S, Estrada C, et al. The SQUIRE (Standards for QUality Improvement Reporting Excellence) guidelines for quality improvement reporting: explanation and elaboration. Qual Saf Health Care. 2008;17 Suppl 1:i13-i32.
  5. Standards for Quality Improvement Reporting Excellence (SQUIRE) guidelines for publication of quality improvement articles. SQUIRE website. Available at: Accessed May 3, 2011.

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