Published in mHIMSS on 1/25/2013 By Erik Wicklund
Most physicians view social media in the workplace with about as much enthusiasm as they’d welcome the bubonic plague. But a community health network in central Washington state is hoping a newly established, physician-managed platform will help them reach a population in dire need of their services.
Columbia Valley Community Health, a four-clinic organization serving some 25,000 people in north-central Washington, recently rolled out a private social platform through its obstetrics practice. Their target population is the 200 to 300 pregnant women at any time in Chelan and Douglas counties, a region largely made up of Spanish-speaking and multilingual laborers in the fruit orchard industry.
It’s a region at the lower end of the economic scale, where residents don’t have much in the line of amenities – but most of them do have a smartphone and a Facebook page.
“Most technology solutions are generally highly literate, and that’s not who we’re dealing with,” says Malcolm Butler, MD, CVCH’s medical director. “They don’t turn to the Internet to discover things. They’re very oral-based – they turn to a family member or a trusted friend – and they want a story that they will understand.”
Butler estimates CVCH helps deliver 400 babies a year, and many of those families have little or no exposure to pre- and post-natal health and wellness information that would much improve the chances of a healthy birth and healthier lifestyle. With that in mind, CVCH rolled out the social platform from Petaluma, Calif.-based WellFx, creating an online resource for information that CVCH physicians can develop and monitor for their patients. The platform enables patients to chat with each other, share advice and photos and receive information vetted by physicians.
According to Butler, CVCH’s OB staff spend much of their time now identifying pregnant mothers, trying to get in touch with them, then trying to get information to them that would improve their pregnancy. But like any poor, rural, multilingual population, he says, they look first to family and friends for advice.
“When people get sick, they want their tribe to rally around,” he says. ‘They feel more comfortable.”
By creating a social network, he says, CVCH can create an online community of patients who would interact with and support each other. Having physicians oversee that network, he says, ensures that the information being passed around is accurate and helpful.
“A social network is a social network,” he says, “and the power comes when you have this critical mass of people interacting with each other.”
Butler concedes that it has been difficult getting physicians involved with the network because so many of them are struggling just to keep up with their daily workload. But he also sees the advantages of the platform, and expects that success will be measured down the road in successful births, less complications and fewer questions – because their patients will be finding the answers to their questions online, and learning to take better care of themselves.
“It’s really just getting patients to care about their health,” he says.
WellFx CEO Jock Putney said the success of a provider-managed social network rests in the ability of providers to identify and manage the content, so that conversations are meaningful and helpful. Just as important, he says, is the creation of a workflow that doesn’t interfere with a physician’s daily responsibilities.
Providers “want a safe and secure network that (affects) clinical outcomes,” he says. While the appearance of a social media platform attracts patients, he adds, the reality of a provider-directed patient engagement tool piques the physician’s interest.
Putney believes the advantages of social media aren’t being properly addressed in healthcare, where doctors envision a chat room occupied solely by patients who spread rumors and gossip. If that chat room was overseen by a clinician, he says, the information exchanged would be accurate. The physician would know that his or her patient was getting important information, and the patient would know that the information was reliable.
Putney says WellFx has experienced strong growth since launching its social engagement platforms last year, and that while payers have always been interested in the concept, providers are now coming on board. “Consumers ultimately want this,” he says, and providers see that demand.
“If I as a doctor see a patient every three to six months, there’s a lot of time in between that they can go off the rails,” he says. “That’s where healthcare suffers from a disconnect.”
‘This gives them that connection.”
At CVCH, Butler says he has 50 people signed up so far on the WellFx OB platform, and is looking for physician champions who will help him expand the program. He sees a community that includes 500 to 700 people suffering from chronic pain, and more than 2,000 diabetics, with many more heading down that path. If he can get them talking to each other, he says, all the better.
“If it doesn’t fly in the obstetrical population, then it’s not going to work anywhere else,” he says, pointing out that in improperly managed social network for people with chronic pain might just end up giving them a better means of selling their drugs to each other. “But we see the potential with this. We believe it makes sense, and we can make it work, and if we have to stumble down that path, we will.”