Facebook boosts patient engagement

By Molly Merrill
09:42 AM

Even in healthcare Facebook is still often thought of as just a marketing tool, but some are looking at how it can boost patient engagement.

Jeff Livingston, MD, created a Facebook fan page for Irving, Tex.-based MacArthur OB/GYN about two years ago when he realized that he needed to start communicating in a way that the population he was trying to reach – adolescents – talked to each other. Livingston created a “fan page” and not a personal page to keep the practice front and center, he says. It also gives him control over the content, which he monitors throughout the day.

Livingston says he uses Facebook to interact with his patients – often educating them in advance so that their appointments can be more meaningful. For example Livingston says if social media like Facebook can educate patients on current birth control options, then patients know what’s available, and the visit can focus on the patient’s choice and how it will impact their health. 

“I would like to spend not very much time on background and more on the plan of care. The more information we can get to you ahead of time the more engaged you are as a patient,” he says.
How social media impacts patient engagement is part of a pilot project at the University of Washington’s Information School.

Wanda Pratt, an associate professor at the university, is part of a team to develop an online system for cancer patients called HealthWeaver. Pratt says the project, which was funded by a research grant from the National Library of Medicine, one of the National Institutes of Health, looks at how health information isn’t separate from one’s business and personal life. HealthWeaver includes a social networking tool that provides what Pratt calls “an appropriate connection” between the two. The study is measuring whether the patients using HealthWeaver are more engaged in their health.

Randolph Cancer Center, a community cancer center in Asheboro, N.C., launched a Facebook page in May 2009 as a way to connect with patients and families said, Executive Director Stacey W. Bannister. She says the center’s fan page, which has a big focus on patient education, also encourages patient-to-patient communication. “The traditional cancer support groups are not well attended anymore,” said Bannister.

Support groups are often touted as a way for patients to not only receive emotional support, but also learn about the latest treatments.

“We see our Facebook page as a ‘virtual support group,’ which allows patients to participate 24/7,” said Bannister.