Why a Registered Nurse is Interested in Social Media

Healthcare and technology are in a rocky relationship. Technology has been prowling about town and growing exponentially while the provision of healthcare remains cooped up inside, unrequieted and left behind. Moore’s Law, which is bleeding out of microprocessors into our lives, seems to be the other lover fueling this breakdown. If this relationship completely breaks down, you and I won’t have the health needed to enjoy the fruits of the cultural upheaval that technology is stirring and which Moore’s Law is infusing. What can be done to resuscitate this relationship? An RN shares his perspective on social media.

The ultimate promise (and perhaps lie) of social media is a transformation of society from a swarm of mindless consumers into a democracy of awakened citizens.

Enter the Registered Nurse

Before I answer the question above: a little backgound about myself and why I’m interested in social media. I have no formal training in IT or social media marketing or web design or blogging. I am an ICU nurse with a background in accounting and finance. A combo like that means that when I look at things I critically assess what I see and probe beneath the surface of appearance (and I see things which you probably don’t want to read about after your breakfast). I know how skeptical questioning leads to better ways of seeing and doing things and I believe that outsiders often provide a fresh and needed insight into traditional fields because they don’t have to uncover the blindspots that often accompany the status quo.

Business, like nursing, is 20% science and 80% common sense. And that rough metaphorical proportion probably holds true in social media.  I cannot point to specific statistics or Harvard-researched studies with complex equations supported by rigorous methodologies to prove to you that social media can revolutionize healthcare. Do I wish I had evidence-based knowledge to back my claim? Of course. But I assert: if we don’t even consider bringing social media to the healthcare industry and thereby yank the industry into the 21st century then we would be incurring a potentially lethal opportunity cost.

Before I became a nurse I was a regular guy living the bubbly posh dream of upper middle class life. My knowledge of the suffering which human beings can endure was academic. But I was interested in learning a lot more; in fact, I wanted to break-out of my bubble to see what the proverbial Rabbit Hole was all about. So when I plunged into the gulf of nursing, my intimate acquaintance with the truth of our world was almost as traumatic as drowning. But I learned to swim.

Health is Social, Social is Health

If there was one common theme I found in caring for my patients I would say it was the importance of support systems. Patients with families who supported them tended to have better outcomes: either they recovered faster or, if their condition was terminal, their deaths were dignified and in the company of love.

But often patients don’t have the support systems in place that they need. And patients sometimes need more than just family support. They need more, even if it’s just a simple link to another patient with the same or similar set of problems. Healthcare facilities don’t always provide optimal support systems. There are various reasons for this–some justifiable, others unconscionable, and the other reasons somewhere in between. Whatever the reasons, we don’t necessarily have to wait for facilities to revolutionize themselves; support systems can be developed in spite of the limitations of the healthcare industry itself. This is where social media becomes interesting.

I have been lurking and commenting on blogs about social media. I have seen amazing ideas, novel approaches to solving problems, and reviews on the latest tools for improving business. But I have also seen a lot of disconnected evangalizing about social media. There seems to be two camps with respect to social media: it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread or it’s largely a total waste of time. To that dichotomy I offer an intuition pump:

A poorly made hammer is no reason to abandon hardware in favor of pounding nails into the wall with your fist.

Twitter has Risen…with Wounded Wings

Countless social media interfaces abound the internet. There are the popular interfaces such as FaceeBook and MySpace. And there are different kinds of social media tools such which you can learn about. But for the sake of this post, I’d like to single-out Twitter.

Twitter is the sound of the Long Tail wagging.

Twitter is a-glitter in the Web 2.0 memesphere. Twitter is not something you can theoretically reject or embrace. It’s an experience. Go sign up now and download Twhirl (or any other client) if you haven’t already. Twitter, pehaps more than any other current social medium, demonstrates the strange but unstoppable power of social media.

Twitter is utter nonsense if that’s how you use it. It’s brilliant if you recognize its (unintended) brilliance. Twitter is a remarkable permission-based human linking system. I have followed incredibly successful, bright and diverse groups of people. I have been gifted with haikus of pearly wisdom, hyperlinks to places I never would have found on Google alone and those links sparked my creativity, intellect and hope. And I have even enjoyed the nit-Twits from Twitterers who probably don’t yet get it; I enjoyed them because somehow it’s all so wonderful to see the voices of people I’ll never meet but who make the experience palpable, real, and more alive than the typical web interface. Even the best blogs can’t deliver that peculiar kind of gig.

Never before in the history of our species have we had a means to instantly communicate with anybody in the world in quite the way we are able to do with Twitter. Think about that. As an interface it has a long way to go. But its ability to link human beings the way that it does is worth adopting, regardless of its future. Twitter is the sound of the Long Tail wagging.

But Twitter also provides a demonstration of the kinds of places social media is heading. As a nurse I am curious to know how it can be used from a healthcare perspective. Here are some hypothetical Tweets to consider:

  • “I was told today that I have a metastasised cancer.”
  • “I’m so depressed that I want to commit suicide. Last night I bought a gun.”
  • “My daughter was killed by a drunk driver last week.”

How would the Twittershpere handle such Tweets? I’m sure that there would be plenty of caring, supporting and concerned followers. But they might not really be equipped to handle such a circumstance. What mechanism could we implant to deal with such situations? This is a real test for social media’s power. And its danger.

Twitter raises fundamental questions that extend beyond healthcare in particular, but which have implications for our general health. What obligations, if any do we have? If I choose to follow you on Twitter (or any other social medium), what kind of permission have I given you and what kind of responsibilities do I have in return? (If you follow me, maybe we can work on the problem.)

We need to discuss these things. We need to get social media right. And right from the start.

An Interactive Connection Among People

Social media has all sorts of definitions on the web. (Google “social media” and find out what I mean.) But here’s my definition:

Social media is an ever-evolving interactive connection among people.

Interactive connection among people. Isn’t that what we are about after all? Isn’t that the very thing our ancestors struggled against the brutal elements to preserve and hand down to us? Of course it is. Religion, art, primitive science, politics…all were social projects achieved through social media. And now is our chance to produce a future to be proud of or to be cursed upon. Love it or hate it, our relationship with technology is becoming increasingly lop-sided in its direction, a direction which could increasingly favor technology more than us. Infusing the technology we are evolving with our social needs is no bad idea at all. It may be what saves us from the final scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey in which the cold and calculating computer manifests human fear while the methodical human being terminates a new kind of life.

I hope by now, I’ve convinced you about the relevance of social media in your life.

A Quick Diversion Down the Social Media Market on Main

Let’s pull-back for a moment and look at the big picture of the economic implications of social media.

The healhcare industry has been slow to properly adopt capitalism successfully. Perhaps that’s because traditional doctors and nurses and administrators didn’t used to have to concern themselves with financial matters when local philanthropy was more common than today. Whatever the reasons, the economics of healthcare is central to the problem of its provision. Any tool which can help patients receive quality care aught to receive an investment of attention.

I hear a lot of talk about universal healthcare by people who have neither first-hand experience delivering healthcare nor a working understanding of macro or micoeconomics. If we are to develop intelligent healthcare strategies, we are going to need to connect the right people together. Fighting the right war with the wrong people is worse than surrender. (The last century took a backslide because so often the wrong people fought the right wars.) The right kind of social media can bring the right people together to collaborate more effectively than political hucksters who exploit every popular pretext for election into office.

If you are intending to use social media to bake your bread, you can use it to improve your market position by delivering remarkable interaction with your customers..or it can accomplish nothing but hastle. Blogging can generate a healthy ROI or waste all of your time. It’s all in your understanding of a blog’s relevance, its place, its limits, its strengths, its science, its art. It depends upon your strategy. A well-crafted up-to-date blog on a hospital’s domain could be a practical way to offer better services, listen to what the community wants and provide a network of patients and family members who otherwise might struggle through their difficulties alone.

Aagain: a poorly made hammer is no reason to abandon hardware in favor of pounding nails into the wall with your fist.

The tools of social media are cheap, ever-evolving, ever-refining, and ever-elusive. Which is to say that social media is laddled with opportunity. It forces us to keep learning, to acquire new skills which we might not ever develop without them. That’s a quality that goes far beyond monetization, consulting fees and commerce. To simply ignore them prima facie based on their misuse is to risk being washed away by the inevitable tsunamis of Moore’s merciless Law. And social media just might be a tsunami to most of Corporate America: people who don’t understand what those tiny little waves accross the ocean really mean can end up like this (link if video missing in your browser):

If the leaders of the healthcare industry can get up to speed with the opportunities provided by social media, then they have an opportunity to converge the right kind of capitalism with the most comprehensive, preventative and effective kind of healthcare system they (and we) are responsible to produce. Not all disasters are inevitable.

An Example of How to Use Social Media in Healthcare

I would like to see social media explored more in the realm of healthcare. For instance, I would like to see a Googlesque Twitter that could link the experience of millions of doctors and nurses and other healtcare providers around the world.

Imagine a doctor treating a patient with symptoms that she just can’t put together into a cohesive diagnosis. If she could Tweet her community and get instant feedback from others who encountered similar cases then she might get that one little idea that could help her more effectively diagnose or treat her stumbling case. Could that kind of use improve treatment or even save a life? Or consider this: How many residents could benefit from following the Tweets of a world-renowned specialist attending fascinating cases? This is the kind of power I’m interesting in seeing evolve intelligently. This is why a registered nurse is interested in social media.

Conclusion: We Need to Get Social Media Right

To arguments that social media is an empty meme and a big waste of time, I say: yup, you’re right…almost. What those arguments are missing is this: the ultimate promise (and perhaps lie) of social media is a transformation of society from a swarm of mindless consumers into a democracy of awakened citizens. There is a big difference between the two. Patients aren’t consumers. They are citizens. That’s a difference worth fighting to make and keep for our descendants.

If we play it right, if we intelligently follow the tenuous thread that the leaders and adopters of this movement are consciously and unconsciously weaving, then social media just might bring us back from that healing place which our modern reasoning has been tugging us away from: home.

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  1. Excellent post, Phil! As a Nurse Practitioner who is trying to retire,(currently teaching PT in a nursing school) I am enjoying sharing tidbits of knowledge to the general public through twitter. Almost everyday someone asks me a health related question on twitter, and I enjoy sharing resources and information. My focus is prevention and wellness as I am also representing a new nutrigenomic skin care company. Today, I shared about Coaches Oat’s with a couple of SM “guys” who are on the Paleo Diet. Am chatting with a home stager realtor about her health as she expressed fear of dying from cancer like the whole rest of her family has. Yesterday, an inspirational quote tweeter tweeted that he was going to the hospital for an emergency visit, then an hour later tweeted he wasn’t feeling well and going to bed. This morning he shares he’s
    having chest pains but cannot afford the tests that he needs.
    One thing that I would like for you to discuss is the legal aspects of giving out health information via twitter.
    Thanks so much for all you do!

  2. I just stumbled across you on twitter and found your blog. It is so refreshing to hear a nurse talking about the impact social media can have on healthcare.

    I am a marketing consultant to healthcare companies –mainly device and wound care, and I am constantly defeated when bringing up the value of a social marketing campaign. They don’t see a monetary return, therefore they don’t want to spend the time or money to undertake the process.

    Perhaps we need a few evangelists to start a social media “experiment” of sorts to show the power it can have. Perhaps they’ll realize that today’s youth, tomorrows healthcare consumer only communicates this way? Or perhaps they’ll adopt in about 20 years, when we’ve moved on to a new form of communication. It will be interesting to see, and in the meantime, I’ll keep trying.

  3. I just discovered your blog thanks to Nurse Sean. You are an excellent, thoughtful, and insightful writer! Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with us in a way that is easy to read and very thought-provoking.

    I have blog-rolled you at Digital Doorway and at Nurse LinkUp, and I have featured your “8 Ways to be a Better Nurse” at Nurse Linkup, as well.

    Looking forward to getting to know your writing more over time.

    All the best,


  4. Thanks to Beth for tweeting the URL to this post: it's great! I still haven't managed to win any of my “real-life” friends over to Twitter, but I keep trying…

  5. WOW. A fellow nurse who “gets” twitter. So glad to have found this blog.
    I completely agree with you – there are so many ways we could harness this technology in the healthcare arena.

  6. @Connie

    I’m glad you enjoyed it.

    I believe Darren Rowse and Chris Brogan had related your story and we ended up connecting via Twitter.

    Thank you for Albert’s reference. I’m glad you know someone in social media and healthcare. Ciao!

  7. Hey Phil,
    I finally read this after reading your comment on Jeremiah’s post about recruiting sm strategists. Is that where we met – over there? or on twitter?

    Thanks for putting it together! this & your comment are right in line with a conversation I had this morning with someone from Europe. (That’s what motivated me)

    You need to connect with @albertmaruggi of Provident Partners. He works with SM & healthcare in MN. He’s a great guy!

  8. @Manny
    TuDiabetes looks like a great opportunity to create a community for people with Diabetes. Good job! That’s what I’m talking about!

  9. Phil:
    Great article! Thought you would like to hear about a social network for people touched by diabetes called TuDiabetes.com. With close to 3,200 members today, it’s been around since March 2007 (it was the first social network about diabetes) and I feel it’s a great example of social media applied to a medical condition.

    If you want to chat over email you can contact me or you are invited to join the community as well.

  10. @Lori Happy to hear Twitter flew you over here. There are aspects of healthcare that are actually quite cutting edge, but there are also many huge gaps, especially in the area of interfacing with community. Happy tweeting!

    @Melanie Twitter won’t really be a substitute for a service like 911, but there will be many situations that I can imagine where people in crisis might use Twitter as a way to plead for help. How the community handles that remains to be seen.

    @Susie I hope your mom enjoys the post. I understand that there are nurses who aren’t quite sure what to make of technological advancements. Hospital facilities aren’t always the best environments (although some are starting to get up to speed). I hope it helps her see how social media relates to healthcare.

    @Strone One glad to hear your feedback as a fellow ICU nurse. I’m sure they’ll be plenty of material to come.

  11. Much food for thought, from a fellow RN who is also digging up a plot on the social media expansion.
    Social media and the advanced in our technology, whether it be direct or indirect to patient care impacts us all on some level. And to ignore it would be.. well.. unhealthy.
    Heh heh.
    Great read as always.
    And let me know if you need a fellow ICU nurse’s input. 🙂

  12. Found your article via Twitter and so glad I did 🙂

    Sending it to my mom as she is an RN in a children’s OR…her hospital is working on becoming more technologically advanced, but I think right now that means making sure their nurses know how to use computers, can take online tests and training sessions, etc (it’s a start!)

    My dad and I are constantly talking about social media and she never sees how it relates to her and her profession. Maybe now she will and can take some initiative to bring it to her hospital!

  13. A wonderful read – so many thought-provoking questions. Especially after having had this experience with Twitter not long ago and being left feeling generally disheartened by what would be required to bring such connection and interaction to fruition.

  14. Phil,

    It’s so fantastic to hear an RN comment on social media and networking. It is true that the Health care industry is perceived as as being behind the curve particularly when it comes to the online space and socnet – but your comments are insightful and spot on.

    Thank you for sharing – and I’m so glad to have found your blog (thank you Twitter and my friends there).

  15. @Stales Love to have you contribute to the conversation. It’s an important topic.

    @Dr. Wright Thank you, that’s what the web is for (I hope).

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