Mayo social media project reflects deeper interest by doctors

The clinic plans to offer social media services to physicians and hospitals because of their frequent requests for help.

By Pamela Lewis Dolan — Posted Aug. 9, 2010

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The Mayo Clinic's effort to start a social media center to train physicians and hospitals in the ways of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and podcasting is one of the biggest signs yet that social media in health care has gone mainstream.

Although no formal studies have outlined proven benefits from using social media, anecdotal evidence of how it has connected physicians and patients -- and the ubiquity of social media use by patients -- is forcing physicians to think about at least dipping a toe into the online pool, experts said.

Mayo said its Center for Social Media, based in Rochester, Minn., also will launch research on the effects of social media in the health world.

"The health care system has always been slow to adopt new things," said Kent Bottles, MD, a pathologist from Philadelphia who runs a health care consulting firm that, among other things, helps health care organizations get involved with social media. "I worry that if we don't bridge this gap between the patients and the providers that we won't get optimal health care."

Dr. Bottles went to Mayo for advice when he was launching his Twitter account. He said he liked what Mayo was doing and wanted to create something similar.

Mayo said it was launching its program because so many hospitals and physicians, such as Dr. Bottles, have come to it for advice. Mayo started its social media presence in 2005 with its first podcast. It later joined Facebook, then YouTube. In 2008 it launched a Twitter feed. Since then, it has attracted more than 20,000 followers on its Facebook page and more than 60,000 followers on its Twitter feed.

The clinic said social media has led to better collaboration among researchers as well as patients becoming better engaged and informed about their health care needs. Social networks have allowed patients to engage not only with physicians but with one another.

How it works

The new center will be organized as a network with paying members, said Lee Aase, a leader of the center and manager of social media for Mayo. The price hasn't been set, but it will vary according to an organization's size. Participants will learn not only from Mayo but also from other groups in the network, he said.

The center will provide one-on-one training to address the specific needs of clients. Mayo's resources originated mostly from internal training the hospital developed for its departments. Services will include training with a boot-camp-style class at Mayo, on-site training at a participant's hospital or practice, and online training; consulting and coaching; conferences; and educational resources.

But Aase said one thing the center will not do is produce social media content. It simply will give organizations the tools and knowledge needed to develop and run a successful social media presence on their own.

Getting started, however, is not always easy. Often, enthusiastic supporters of social media have trouble getting buy-in from higher-ups, Aase said. Many individuals get shot down by their hospitals' legal or information technology departments or marketing staffs. To help them -- and to help physicians who are trying to get support from their practice partners -- Mayo hopes to demonstrate how social media tools can be used effectively yet safely. The center also will study the effects of social media on patient satisfaction.

"We want to be able to show it's not all risk with no benefit," Aase said.

Jamey Shiels, director of social media and digital communication for Aurora Health Care, a Milwaukee-based hospital system with an active social media presence, said he sees Mayo Clinic's social media center having one of two effects. It could help push social media into the mainstream, because Mayo is leading the effort. On the other hand, people might see it as possible for a large organization like Mayo but not for them.

Shiels said many organizations believe they don't have the staff to handle the duties of social media. Dr. Bottles said this is especially true for physician practices that don't even have a marketing team.

"Physicians are trying so hard to keep their heads above water. They think it'll be too much," he said.

However, experts said more physicians are diving into social media even if it's just to test the waters. Sites such as Twitter Doctors track physicians who are tweeting. A 2009 Manhattan Research survey found that 60% of doctors said they use, or want to use, social networking sites.

Meanwhile, Edward Bennett, director of Web strategy at the University of Maryland Medical System, runs a blog that keeps tabs on social media activities by hospitals and health care organizations. As of late July, 762 of the more than 5,000 hospitals in the U.S. had some level of social media presence, according to his blog. The most used platforms are Facebook fan pages and Twitter accounts.

There are different social media expectations for hospitals and physician practices. Hospitals already are in the "must have" category when it comes to active social media, said Liana Evans, director of social media for McLean, Va.-based Serengeti Communications.

Physicians shouldn't feel pressured to jump on the social media bandwagon immediately just because others are doing it, she said. But they, too, eventually will need to have some social media presence.

"At some point, you should have some kind of way to communicate with your patients in social media," Evans said. "You need to give them some kind of outlet to communicate with you, because that's where everybody's spending their time these days."

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External links

Mayo Clinic blogs and social media (link)

Twitter Doctors, a registry of physicians using Twitter (link)

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