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The Give and Take of Health System Social Media

Like a lot of folks, I’ve got kind of a love/hate relationship with social media. Just about everything on the Internet carries with it an inherent polarization—the highs are extraordinarily high, the lows extraordinarily low—and social media hasn’t proven any different. Thankfully, working for a health system that’s continually finding new and interesting ways to utilize the medium means I get to experience more of those extraordinary high points.

Take, for example, Tugger:

We’ll have a more in-depth post about Tugger and his story in the next few weeks, but I wanted to highlight this video specifically because I think it’s a fantastic example of what I feel social media can do for large institutions like Penn Medicine: provide interesting, charming, sometimes unique lenses through which to view what regularly happens here, and show the more human (or, in some cases, animal) side of life in the health system. If you’ve read some of my other posts, you probably know how much I value these off-beat glimpses at the otherwise relatively mundane, and our Tugger video is maybe the most literal interpretation of that so far.

There’s also the globe-spanning work that went into the creation of Three Hand Transplant Patients, One Milestone Moment, a similarly touching video that featured three patients who received life-changing hand transplants all meeting in the same room for the first time ever—and surprising the Penn Medicine physician who made it all possible:

It goes beyond just touching videos or Facebook posts, too: It turns out that social media can be utilized to improve health care as a whole. According to a recent Penn Medicine news release, online platforms like Yelp can function as more than just a sounding board for someone who doesn’t like how cold their appetizer was at the local diner: They can also provide a way for users to communicate their needs to health care providers.

“Reviews posted to sites like Yelp or TripAdvisor are the modern day version of word-of-mouth testimonials, providing insight into millions of consumer experiences that are not only influential to other consumers, but can and should be influential to service providers,” Raina M. Merchant, MD, MSHP, director of Penn’s Social Media and Health Innovation Lab, said in the release.

So while you—and, let’s be real, here, I—may scoff at some of the more absurd opinions espoused on a platform like Yelp about, say, the virtues of your local café’s soup bowl sizes and how they impact one’s ability to dunk a grilled cheese, it’s important to acknowledge that there’s also plenty of value to be found in some of the more productive user comments about, say, parking, facility navigation, and wait times.

Yet again, it’s that inherent social media dichotomy: the great and productive versus the … not so much. With social media, it’s often about recognizing the former when you see it.

There are other examples—some recent, some upcoming—of social media proving useful for health systems in ways you might not expect. Take, for instance, another study from Merchant wherein researchers looked at around half a million tweets about cardiovascular disease.

“We demonstrated that Twitter can provide important information about heart disease, and represents a unique opportunity to listen to patients and understand more about what they talk about and care about related to cardiovascular health,” Merchant said in the release.

Another member of the Penn Social Media and Health Innovation Lab, H. Andrew Schwartz, PhD, visiting assistant professor in computer and information science, is working on somewhat similar research about Twitter and how it can be mined for information about HIV. Stay tuned to the blog for a more in-depth look at Schwartz’s work later this month.

It’s in this give-and-take that the true value of health system social media is found: the ability for a huge institution to communicate its own message or accomplishments with followers on a more personal level, as well as the ability for users to communicate right back with said institution in myriad ways—even indirectly. We engage with social media not just because that’s where the people are, but because it provides a platform upon which we can learn just as much from them as they can from us.

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Views expressed are those of the author or other attributed individual and do not necessarily represent the official opinion of the related Department(s), University of Pennsylvania Health System (Penn Medicine), or the University of Pennsylvania, unless explicitly stated with the authority to do so.

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