Social media's role in the doctor-patient relationship

Some time ago, in an earlier column, I mentioned that most people do Internet research about their symptoms before consulting with a physician.

Strangely enough, it seems the demographic that is most smitten with social media is utterly unlikely to seek an online relationship with their doctors.

According to Capstrat, a communications agency based in Raleigh, N.C., Millennials (or Generation Y) do not prefer to use social media, or even text messaging, for personal health communications with their health care providers. The national poll found that even young Americans (18 to 29 years old) still prefer traditional forms of communication with their doctors. Within this age group, 84 percent of respondents said they would not communicate with their doctors via social media sites or text, even if it were an option.

Undeterred by these stats, the health care industry has made a big push to tap into the power of the Internet as a way to improve communications with their customers -- patients. And while young people might not want to be friends with their docs on Facebook, other studies show that overall, social media can be an effective tool for this industry. Even though some of the tactics are in the early stages, they do seem to hold promise if properly applied. Here are just a few examples:

Administrative purposes

Capstrat found that patients were more comfortable with using new media for administrative health care functions, such as appointment scheduling and reminders, and accessing medical records. Texting is one tool that is currently being used for administrative medical purposes. Rx-Text, for example, has created a program for medical facilities to easily and securely schedule appointments or to send reminders to their patients. While the company already has customers, they are still performing clinical trials to test the efficacy of text-based reminders. Rx-Text also allows patients to text back in the event that they want to cancel an appointment or tell their physician they will be late.

Merck has also launched a computer desktop reminder tool called NuvaTime that helps women set reminders for doctor's appointments, prescription refills and even when to insert and remove their NuvaRing, a birth control product. Women can also use the application to receive text message reminders on their phone.

Humanizing physicians

Social media can have a place in health care that is not directly related to health at all, but rather helps patients feel connected to their physicians and relate to them as "real people." UNC Health Care launched a YouTube and blog series called "real doctors, real people" that is devoted to giving patients a glimpse into the lives of their doctors. Most of them showcase physicians' hobbies, outside of the medical field. One installment, for example, focuses on Dr. David Peden, a pediatrician at UNC who practices Judo. The posting relates how a Marine Corps coach at a Judo competition chastised his team for getting beaten by Peden -- a "baby doctor!" Many other physicians are reaching out to patients individually, especially on Twitter, with a mix of both health postings and regular musings and observations -- the bread and butter of Twitter.

Health tips and alerts

Providing health tips is one of the most obvious areas for quality content by the medical industry, and this has been a growing topic on blogs and other social media outlets. Some of these physician blogs are a kind of mommy blog meets health blog.

Pediatrician Melissa Arca's Confessions of a Doctor Mom is an example of this type of hybrid. While Arca's blog is personal, large medical organizations have recognized the intersection of health and parenting as a sweet spot and are hosting doctor-mommy blogs on their websites. One well-known example is the Seattle Mama Doc blog by Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson that is hosted on the website of Seattle Children's Hospital. This specific type of blog also fits into the humanizing category, showing parents that even pediatricians face the same health decisions regarding their children.

Government agencies have also recognized the potential for the Internet to disseminate health information and are developing tools that complement tried and true tactics like advertising and media relations.

Text4baby, a government-sponsored initiative that sends pregnancy and infant-care tips to subscribers, had a whopping 135,000 people subscribe in its first year. And San Diego County's Department of Environmental Health launched the first text campaign and mobile website by the county to alert residents about outbreaks of West Nile Virus. Contracting West Nile Virus can have devastating effects. But simple measures like using mosquito repellent and eliminating standing water on your property can greatly reduce your risk. The mobile outreach program will become especially valuable in the event of an outbreak; enabling health officials to broadcast the location so nearby residents can protect themselves. Residents can simply text the word PEST to 75309 to subscribe. The county also provides updated information via its mobile website:

While most Americans might not be interested in becoming online chums with their doctors, texting and other online tools have already demonstrated that they can improve the flow of information around health care. Privacy issues and FDA regulations may require adjustments to these types of campaigns, but online communication between health care providers and patients is clearly here to stay. To join the conversation surrounding health care and social media, follow the hashtag #hcsm on Twitter where physicians, social media professionals and others in the industry discuss and share information.

Schmid is the managing partner of Cook + Schmid, a San Diego-based marketing and public relations firm. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jschmidpr, or read his blog at

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