Swedish’s Young Social-Media Ace Coaches Docs in the Ways of the Web
Dana Lewis, at 22, found a job telling doctors what to do. It has nothing to do with deciding which diagnostic test to run, what drug to prescribe, or how much they can bill for an MRI. It has everything to do with how physicians can better communicate with patients over the Web in the 21st century.
Seattle’s biggest nonprofit hospital, Swedish Medical Center, was so pumped up about Lewis and what she does that it issued a press release last month calling her an “Internationally Recognized Social Media Strategist.” Hiring someone for that task is a sign of how serious Swedish is about connecting its network of more than 2,000 physicians with their patients through clever use of Twitter, Facebook, and other tools of the social media trade. It’s not every day that 22 year olds get trumpeted in press releases, so I decided to follow up to learn more.
Lewis’ journey, like those of many people, started as a personal one. She was a freshman in high school in 2002 when she was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. She scarfed up as much information about the condition as she could find online. She considered pursuing a medical or science-related career when she went off to college at the University of Alabama. But as Facebook and Twitter caught on, she was adopted them early, and sought to connect with people like her who wanted to share information about common interests. By January 2009, Lewis had started toying around with friends who shared her interest in using social media to have conversations about healthcare. What started as a conversation among four people at #hcsm ended up attracting hundreds and thousands of doctors, lawyers, and healthcare professionals every Sunday night—and a social media star was born.
“I was thinking about science and medical path, but I felt it was a better path for me to go into communications where I could impact more people once I graduated,” Lewis says. “I didn’t want to wait to make a difference.”
Melissa Tizon, the director of corporate communications at Swedish, said she stumbled across Lewis by following the healthcare social media conversation on Twitter. Tizon started thinking about how to go beyond just issuing press releases and the usual marketing messages re-packaged through Twitter. Through her rapid-fire tweets about living with Type 1 diabetes, a genuine spirit of helping patients find useful information online, and with humanizing little blurbs about her love of Diet Coke, Lewis had intuitively figured out how to build a large and deep following that could be useful for a hospital.
“I was impressed that she was such an advocate for patients and how to empower them through online information,” Tizon says. “Through her consistency on Twitter, I felt like I knew her. I could tell she was a hard worker and a serious person. Her tweeting pattern told me that she was genuinely passionate about both healthcare and social media. I knew I couldn’t go wrong.”
So Lewis traveled out to Seattle for her first job, which is to help people at Swedish figure out how to plug into this social media world. It’s no small thing. The hospital has multiple locations, like First Hill, Cherry Hill, and Ballard, and more than 2,000 physicians across its network. Doctors are super busy, and not exactly known as early adopters of any new technologies.
The job really involves going around the network and meeting with doctors to find out what they’d like accomplish through social media. Lewis asks about what kind of audience the doctor wants to reach—peers, existing patients, a public health audience—-and then seeks to match up the right tool, whether it’s YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, a professional network like iMedExhange, or something else.
Clearly, there’s a lot of work to do. Of the 2,000 or so physicians in the network, I wondered how many doctors are really buying into the potential of social media. Right now, it might be about 100, Lewis says.
The key barrier there is time, or a lack of it. But Lewis says there are plenty of people who are curious to learn more. Many doctors have personal Facebook accounts for their families and friends, and have had to think about what to do when a patient tries to “friend” them.
With an estimated 500 million people on Facebook, many of them Baby Boomers with health issues, that sort of trend isn’t going away. How much of the curiosity among doctors will translate into commitment and consistency? And how much will it change the always delicate relationship between doctor and patient?
That’s the sort of question that nobody can really answer just yet.
“Doctors want to talk to their patients, but don’t want to diagnose somebody on Facebook, just like they wouldn’t diagnose somebody by e-mail,” Lewis says. “They need to think about how they present themselves, and how they set their limits.” But she adds: “Our goal is to become a very social hospital.”