Medical Industry Taking Notice Of Social Media

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By Tim Morton

Most companies recognize that social media has become established as a viable business tool.  Many leaders are using sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to connect to their customers, recruit followers and promote their services real-time.  But the opportunity to ‘connect the dots’ and utilize social media in a safe and meaningful way has yet to be fully realized.   Whoever gets there first has the opportunity to revolutionize and forever change the medical industry.

The Current Situation

Social media sites for the medical industry range from broad, open platforms to niche, narrowly concentrated forums. Facebook, Twitter and Youtube have become broad platforms for individuals and corporations alike to broadcast experiences and opinions large and small.  CancerDoc, HealthLine, and RevolutionHealth are more narrowly targeted places for rapidly communicating and connecting to those who are sharing similar experiences, communicating information and sharing ideas amongst patients and medical industry peers.

Expert Q&A sites, such as WebMD and AskDrWiki, are popular as patients can find credible health information to answer their questions.  Physician networks, such as Sermo and Ozmosis, serve as “virtual water coolers” where physicians can collaborate in real-time.  Sermo, the largest online physician community with over 115,000 members, serves as an exclusive forum to share medical insights and expertise.

But no matter what portal is being used by patient or provider, the single most beneficial aspect of social media is the collaboration enabled by the openness of vast numbers.  Most are trying to get their message out, educate, inform, and simply share. The portals themselves, empowered by the strength of their members, are positioning themselves as the source of true, real-time data and insights. Many healthcare facilities use social media to crowdsource, or basically ask for input from users to help develop or improve products and services quickly and efficiently.  Others are enabling real-time learning by running podcasts of surgeries which students can “attend” remotely.

In 2010 specifically, we saw a significant jump in medical companies utilizing social media tools, taking after early success stories like the Mayo Clinic. Mayo has gained over 25,000 Facebook fans just in the past year (they’re now over 33,000).  The “wall” is filled with patients’ thanks, interviews, advice, industry news and nearly 150 videos.  Its presence in this space has strengthened the Clinic’s name as a thought leader in medical care and innovation.

Future Opportunities

While this is all important to building relationships and brands, these building blocks could be the source for much more revolutionary advancements. Over time the intimate knowledge of a contributor, a regional demographic or an international group of sufferers could be used as proactive triggers for action. Imagine a device that collects signs of your general wellbeing, then the data from this blends with your Facebook postings on location, time, diet and feeling while aggregating information from other users and facilities. When linked to your medical facility and medication status, your pharmacy, your caregiver or your gym could generate guidance and suggestions which are sent back to you daily. If a hazardous situation is suspected by auto analysis of the data then this could directly alert your doctor to provide personal, quick advice and instructions. The potential to use social media and connected, aware devices for wellbeing and preventative care is huge, as are the possibilities for predicting and tracking patterns in health globally.

Social media offers unique opportunities for scalable interaction and collaboration which is why medical and lifestyle device manufacturers have much opportunity ahead of them.  By developing products that become part of the user’s daily lives (think how important your smartphone is to you now) manufacturers will find themselves building a loyal customer base that is not only using their device, but is also interacting with them and providing unparalleled insight into their habits in real time – helping fuel future understanding and developments.

Nike is one company that has been quick to the punch as they bring more innovative approaches to social media and wellbeing.  The Nike+ Running Monitor is an application that meshes telehealth devices with social media, monitoring and posting running information on Facebook.  All of this tracking and communication also serves as a great promoter of the manufacturer as it’s advertised every time the user uses it to post a status update.

Despite all the progress over the past year, there remain challenges for medical companies when diving into social media. It remains a very new horizon for the industry that faces hurdles posed by the traditions of the medical and insurance industries.  Companies who are agile and able to pivot as a reaction to the times and the data they are gathering will likely be the winners.  It’s not hard to imagine Google as the CDC’s biggest information source in the future, aggregating and reporting clusters of users searching for key disease symptoms through an app portal or tweeting about illnesses.  Used as tools for triggers, Social Media can serve to take the temperature of societal health, allowing the medical community to watch patterns unfold – for example, the effects of pollution in specified areas, or the effects of population density and socioeconomic variations around the world.

If device manufacturers and the medical community figure out how to harness and leverage the power of people’s desire to connect and share they could achieve groundbreaking contributions to healthcare and the connected world as a whole in the coming years.

Tim Morton’s background and experiences has led to a balanced and insightful understanding of how research, design and creativity are essential business tools to develop commercially successful solutions. Since 2002, Tim has been involved with multiple design projects for PDT, ranging from facilitating fast innovation workshops to guiding in-depth research and development programs. Some of the leading projects he has been involved with include: Qualcomm Inc., Kimberley Clark, Medela, Chamberlain Group, RIM, Kyocera, Firefly mobile, Cobra, Sendo, SC Johnson, Sanford-Papermate, Dell, RTI, Dremel, Milwaukie Electric, ACCO and Fellowes. He has previously held roles within research, design, marketing and sales as both client and consultant. His holistic perspective of product development is influenced by his passion for discovery, and the translation of discoveries into ideas and solutions. Immediately prior to PDT, Tim successfully operated as an independent consultant for four years in the U.K., providing conceptual kick-starts, creative guidance and design direction to multiple industries. He also worked with the LEGO group as designer and creative lead within several areas of new product development, design and brand licensing development.

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