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8/11/2009
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Healthcare Providers Plug Into Facebook, Twitter, YouTube

The social media craze is creating new challenges and opportunities for the University of California San Francisco Medical Center and Mayo Clinic.

The clinic's major focus is on blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. "We just mix and match those platforms; it's kind of like your four basic food groups, you blend them in different ways," he said.

Mayo sees social media as an extension of word of mouth. "Word of mouth has been a crucial part of building Mayo's brand for more than a hundred years," Aase said. "People come here, have a good experience, go home and tell about it. We see social media as the 21st Century version of word of mouth. We're talking to the whole world, potentially."

Social media lets doctors help people in much greater numbers than in-person treatments. "We can talk to one doctor on a video camera for 10 minutes, and put out information that helps thousands," Aase said.

For example, the clinic's most popular video is a 22-minute interview with a doctor on the subject of Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome, a condition primarily affecting teenage girls frequently misdiagnosed as simple depression or fakery. "For those patients that are really craving this information, it's the kind of information they couldn't get otherwise," Aase said. "We couldn't get 22 minutes on the air from something like that--nobody would let us buy it."

Ethical Concerns

Companies in the healthcare industry looking to use social media face a range of regulatory and ethical issues.

HIPAA compliance is the main concern for the Mayo Clinic. Patients are legally entitled to post information on their own conditions, but the clinic needs to get a consent form for interviews with patients about their stories. The middle ground is when a private individual posts a message about another person's condition. In that case, the Mayo Clinic removes identifying details so the information doesn't point back to a specific person.

"I wouldn't say we had huge obstacles, we just needed some soaking time, to work it through and make the case," Aase said.

As the social-media savvy students now in medical school grow to become doctors, administrators, and instructors themselves, the medical profession will have to develop rules for using tools like Facebook. But Cucina says he's confident that will happen.

"We had these same conversations 10 or 15 years ago about the Internet. As the Internet became ubiquitous, people wrote articles about whether medical groups should have Web sites, and whether doctors should have e-mail. Now, it's taken for granted they should," Cucina said. "We understand boundaries," when to use encryption and greater security to manage privacy, and that diagnoses and difficult conversations shouldn't be communicated through e-mail. The same understandings will develop for social media.

Cucina is in the forefront of developing those rules—he's teaching a class, called, "Blogs, Tweets, and Facebook: What the Hospital and Medical Administrator Needs To Know," in October in San Francisco as part of a continuing education program that doctors are required to take to keep their licenses.

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