Google+ Could Be Just the Thing for Physicians

One of the biggest quandaries for health care communicators has been physicians’ enduring reluctance to broadly adopt social media.

The big issue is control – or more precisely, the lack of it. The uncontrolled environment of most social media channels causes most physicians to hesitate and wait.  In medicine, there’s a term “watchful waiting,” and that’s what happening here.

It’s one reason why Facebook has not been the doctor’s professional social network of choice. Its stubborn blindness to piracy is well documented. But as many writers have pointed out, Facebook’s control and privacy problems are also fundamental to its structure.


In our offline lives, we share different things with family, work colleagues, and friends. Most of my extended family doesn’t care much about social media, and the people I work with aren’t very interested in my daughter’s track meet. That’s just how life works.

But Facebook lumps all our relationships into a single, undifferentiated blob. This is basically why doctors are nervous about Facebook. Some have addressed this issue online by creating separate Facebook and Twitter accounts for their personal and professional lives.  But creating multiple online personalities can be a pain in the butt, and the risk of making career-threatening mistakes is high. Rather than experiment, a lot of doctors just ignore it.

Enter Google+. The big breakthrough here is that it gives you control of your privacy, on your terms. And it’s easy. No more trying to decode Facebook’s ridiculously obtuse privacy settings, and no more multiple accounts.

The key is in the Google+ idea of Circles. For everyone person who connects with you, you have the choice of adding them to a particular Circle in your life. Google sets you up with the basics: friends, family, etc. You can add your own.  No one but you sees those Circles or their members.

When you want to share something, you get to pick the circles you want to share it with, share by share. The minions of Mark Zuckerberg are not making the decision for you anymore. It’s entirely up to you.

So doctors could have these kinds of circles:

  • Colleagues: For asking about clinical advice, or just to vent about the latest health policy injustice.
  • Patients: To share good articles that are relevant to the people they treat.
  • Family and friends: When they just want to complain about the Red Sox, or share photos of the kids.

I wonder where medical societies would fit in?

I don’t profess to be an expert on Google+, but I know a possibility when I see one. This won’t take over the medical world overnight, but it bears watching.

UPDATE (Aug. 18): Two physicians recently expressed similar thoughts on KevinMD: Google+: Physicians Can Optimize Their Online Footprint


Google Flu Trends = Social Media

Google’s experiment in trending flu outbreaks is absolutely – and I mean absolutely – amazing. I bet that any professional epidemiologist would cringe at the idea of using non-clinical data to identify disease trends, but this application boggles my mind.

Here’s how it works. Google meters its search queries on flu-related topics, figuring that the more that people search on a flu topic, the more likely the flu is occurring in real life. It does not measure anything clinical – nothing about positive throat cultures, visits to emergency departments, or any other traditional sentinel reporting measures. Just search queries.

The demo on Google’s own website shows how, using data from the 2007-2008 flu season, it can identify flu trends two weeks ahead of anyone else, including the CDC. The data for this current season – the first full season with the H1N1 virus – confirm that many people are getting sick with the flu already, months before the traditional height of the flu season.

Here’s the data about the U.S., as of Sept. 29:

google flu trends

State-specific data can be filtered, too.

google flu trends - mass

This is a new kind of sentinel reporting for infectious disease.

If you consider that Diggs and other user voting systems, sharing content, and even search queries are all forms of user-generated content, then this is social media in its most pragmatic form, producing a product that can be really valuable.

This can be replicated for any other social phenomenon – in health care or anywhere else. What else could we measure?

Swine Flu Outbreak: A Moment of Truth for Associations and Social Media

Photo by videoplacebo via FlickrHealth care associations have had their hands full this week, gathering and disseminating the latest on the swine flu outbreak in the U.S. It’s moments like this when associations prove their worth – in times of urgency, if not crisis.

The flu’s outbreak in the country occurred last week in Texas, where the Texas Medical Association acted quickly to alert its members about what had happened. By Monday this was a certifiable mainstream media story, for better and for worse. The job for associations wasn’t so much to alert their members anymore, as to separate the good information from the bad and provide measured, authoritative guidance.

Our state Department of Public Health made our job easier. It started issuing regular alerts, held statewide conference calls, and established focused incident teams. We relayed the state’s information via our own Flu Advisory e-mail alerts, and used our website to highlight state and federal flu information feeds, as well as our own flu resources. As of Monday, we were still playing it low-keyed, since there weren’t any confirmed cases yet in Massachusetts, or even in New England. We didn’t want to stoke any hysteria.

Things changed significantly Wednesday morning, when the state announced the first two confirmed cases in Massachusetts – two school children who had just returned with their family from Mexico.

We changed our approach, deciding to put all our media touchpoints into play. We created a graphical banner on our home page, to provide easy access to our information. We focused our blog exclusively on flu information. We set up on Twitter account and invited followers. We set up a new Facebook page focused on the flu.

We didn’t add anything special to the state’s information. But we also didn’t assume that all our members, or the public, had access to all the official information at our disposal. So we reached out to people wherever they could get their information, whether it was by email, on websites, social networks, RSS feeds, or Twitter.

I’m also hoping that users of these media will contribute to our knowledge, which would make a time consuming process more worthwhile. We don’t yet have the tools to write once and syndicate to our all channels with one click – we will someday, I hope, but not now. For now, it’s a laborious step by step process, but necessary activity in our evermore fragmented media world.


Boston Herald image: April 30, 2009If you want evidence of how some media will stoke the hysteria, see this image at the left. It’s the front page this morning of the Boston Herald. As Mo Vaughn, a former Red Sox slugger, once said, “Stupid people in Boston! Stupid!”

The Herald is almost irrelevant in this market now, but this idiocy confirms the need for associations to be measured, trusted and reliable sources of information.