Published in Healthcare IT News on 1/28/13 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. The 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.