Will Social Networks Become A Foundation Of Effective Health Systems?

The desire to be touched by and connected with others is among our most primal and, until recently, our most untapped qualities. There have always been powerful signs of it. Those of us who remember exchanging letters with distant friends and family know the palpable anticipation when a letter arrived.

Years ago I visited the senior center at Pan American Hospital in Miami, an institution beloved by the “abuelos” (grandparents), mostly elderly immigrant Cubans who had fled Castro and settled in South Florida. At the time, it seemed curious. Maybe a hundred Cuban seniors were sitting, chatting, sipping coffee, playing cards and dominoes, dancing, in a community center sponsored and maintained by the hospital. Occasionally, but by no means each time they visited the center, one or two would leave to go to a doctor’s appointment. For most, it was just a place to spend a few hours and maybe the day.

In today’s terms, Pan American’s social network cultivated a sense of loyalty and community with its seniors, and it worked. The abuelos felt that Pan American was THEIR hospital, and they would have been loathe to go elsewhere.

If the Web has done anything, it has tapped into, given expression to, hyper-charged, and created the potential to exploit that desire. Who could have imagined that American teenagers now send or receive a text, on average, 3,339 times a month (which, by the way, works out to once every 8.5 minutes, 16 hours a day).

Of course, the genius of general Web-based social media – email, as well as Facebook, Twitter, Linked-In and similar sites – is that they have become relatively stable platforms catering to the deep hunger for social exchange. Utility is powerful, but loyalty trumps utility any day. Competing vendors are easily interchangeable, but buyers will flock to the one they are bonded with.

One question that faces health care now is whether organizations can instill that same sense of belonging and affinity, and not only in patients, but between staff and with the staffs of partner organizations. Certainly, to be successful, Accountable Care Organizations will need to bring together and effectively manage patients, over time and throughout the continuum of care. That job will become easier if the patient feels a bond with the organization and its people. If s(he) doesn’t, the increasing distance between the patient and the clinician will likely translate to non-adherence, making it difficult to achieve optimal outcomes over time.

This is obviously the next step in tools for health care professionals as well. David Kibbe MD imagines that, in the not-too-distant future, “clinical groupware” applications will be “interactive” and “collaborative” with patients, clinicians and everyone else in the continuum of the care industry, facilitating both a sense of connection and a productive work platform. Ultimately, every device will become a window into a community and marketplace.

None of this has been lost on innovators. Over the last five years, an explosion in early health care social networks has focused on specific populations. The most famous, undoubtedly, is the perfectly named Patients Like Me, but there are now dozens of sites that combine social interaction and targeted information for patients with cancer, diabetes, and virtually any other mainstream condition. Sermo has been successful in recruiting physicians to discuss both patient care and topical issues (leading to their CEO’s suggestion that Sermo is now more the go-to place than the AMA for matters physicians care about).

But the deeper, more mature challenge is integrating social media into everyday health care in ways that cultivate better outcomes at lower cost. It isn’t hard to imagine that many of these niche sites will become ancillaries that a more centralized social medium will link with. Many organizations will compete to supply the operational infrastructure that can securely support productivity and communications between and among patients, clinicians and partners.

But it starts earlier and is more complex than even that. A patient entering a modern health care system must navigate vast, complicated health resources, many of them organizationally unrelated to the referring provider. Helping that patient make choices and then seamlessly move throughout the system, all the while remaining connected, informed and assured, is no small task, but it is one that can be dramatically enhanced by technologies. See the Forbes video below with David Cerino, Microsoft’s General Manager of its Health Solutions Group, where he reflects on how to approach this problem.

The technological complexity and resources required to successfully deploy these kinds of tools will probably favor large, established organizations, often incorporating elements from the best startups. We’ll explore several on C&C in the near future.

Forbes.com Video Network | Technology: Integrating Technology Into Healthcare.

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