This post is part of a series related to my 35 Social Media Theses, in which I will discuss and amplify upon each of the statements I believe define the social media revolution, particularly as they relate to healthcare. I’m starting with Thesis 33 because it has particular application in an extremely exciting project I’m working on right now.
Social media will decrease diffusion time for medical research and healthcare innovations
One of the most frustrating parts of being involved in medical research is how long it takes for innovations and discoveries to spread. It’s generally understood within the medical community that it takes about 17 years for a discovery to work its way through the medical establishment, to really change everyday practice.
Social media will help revolutionize this diffusion process by making research information more accessible not only to physicians, but also to patients and consumers. And in a moment, I’m going to invite you to participate in an experiment to help prove this.
Here’s how the process has worked until this point (Because this thesis is about the dissemination of information and not about the discovery itself, we will start our discussion at the point of discovery):
- Dr. A’s research lab conducts a study and discovers a better treatment that could or should change medical practice.
- He submits an abstract, or research summary, to the annual meeting of physicians in his specialty. The abstract is reviewed by the program committee, and if they think it is interesting and valid they invite him to create a poster to be displayed at the meeting and to be discussed by other physicians and researchers. If they think it’s extra interesting, they may even ask him to do an oral presentation in one of the program tracks at the meeting. Those who attend the session or talk with Dr. A at the meeting may be stirred to change their practice, or may decide to conduct some related research of their own. News reporters covering the meeting may decide to do a story about the research findings, but perhaps one percent of abstracts submitted get news coverage.
- On another track, Dr. A will typically submit his research findings to a medical journal for publication. These papers are “peer reviewed” which means other physicians and researchers in the field look at the paper and decide whether they think the findings are valid and important enough to be published, and whether they’re something really new. This process of review and publication typically takes at least several months, although some of the journals are now publishing online before print, to help get the word out sooner.
- If the paper is published by the journal, the findings again may be the subject of news coverage, but for that to happen it requires a PR person (like me) to decide the research is likely to be interesting enough to reporters that they will be willing to develop a story. Then the reporters need to convince editors or producers that the story will be interesting enough to readers, viewers or listeners to be worthwhile. I would estimate that at best perhaps 10 percent of journal articles receive some news coverage. Of course, that varies by journal, as the the general ones like JAMA or New England Journal of Medicine or Mayo Clinic Proceedings may get one or two papers in the news, while the more specialized journals like Journal of Hand Surgery typically don’t get any mainstream news coverage.
- As Dr. A continues research related to the topic, this provides further opportunities for dissemination, and as other researchers in the field submit articles to journals they may cite his paper as a related resource upon which their research was based.
- Dr. A may be asked to visit other academic medical centers to discuss his treatment methods, which will help get more physicians personally familiar and hopefully even applying the results in their practices. He also may be asked to speak at continuing medical education (CME) courses, which help physicians get up-to-date on recent discoveries.
In the health communications system today, most participants are trying to do what’s best, as they see it. But it still takes far too long for valuable discoveries to become mainstream practice, and as a result patients don’t get the best care they could.
Thesis #33 says social media can help accelerate this process of knowledge diffusion. Here are six reasons why:
- Social media don’t depend on reaching mass audiences for their economic viability. Mainstream media have scarce space and time and must be able to interest an audience sufficiently large to be attractive to advertisers. The social media space is practically infinite, so researchers with a story to tell or a message to spread have no real barriers to getting to the Web and reaching the group, however small, that might be interested.
- Even if a condition is rare – or especially if it’s rare – it’s worthwhile to shoot a Flip video describing the latest research, upload it to YouTube, and embed it in a blog. Rare conditions are less likely to have lots of material already published, so your post is more likely to reach the coveted first page of Google results for your keywords.
- Social media tools can tighten connections between researchers in the same field. Whether through Twitter, Facebook or physician-only sites like Sermo, social platforms take the friction out of maintaining relationships and sharing information.
- Social media tools make it easier than ever before for patients with a common disease or condition to find each other and to share resources. And they don’t have to live in the same community.
- Physicians and patients will increasingly interact in social networks. Patients will be able to form online networks for nothing, and as we have seen with Wikipedia, will be motivated to share the latest news and research findings with each other. Some physicians will also join these networks and will interact directly with patients.
- Patients will bring what they have learned online into office discussions with their own physicians. They will be motivated to spread the word about a discovery that could have implications for their own treatment.
I am pleased to announce that at Mayo Clinic we are conducting an experiment this week to see, among other things, how social media can help reduce this knowledge-diffusion time for an important discovery.
Dr. Richard Berger is a Mayo Clinic orthopedic surgeon who discovered an explanation for mysterious wrist pain in many patients whose MRI scans appear normal. In the video below, he explains the injury, called a split tear of the UT ligament, and how he discovered it:
Dr. Berger has developed a simple, non-invasive test for the UT split tear, which he describes and demonstrates below:
Here’s where the social media experiment in diffusion of medical research information comes in. Dr. Berger (@RABergerMD) will be participating in a live #wristpain Twitter chat about mysterious wrist pain and the UT ligament split tear on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2009 from 4-5 p.m. EST. The format for the chat and more background information about the injury are available on the Mayo Clinic News Blog, but I have embedded a widget for all tweets using the #wristpain tag below:
- If you personally are experiencing wrist pain, I hope you will join us for this #wristpain Twitter chat.
- If you know people who have complained of nagging wrist pain and haven’t been able to get answers, please forward the information about the #wristpain chat to them. They also may ask questions and engage in discussion directly on the Mayo Clinic News Blog. The Twitter chat also can obviously start before the Thursday afternoon appointed time, and can continue afterwards. But during that 4-5 p.m. EST time Dr. Berger will be online.
- If you don’t have wrist pain, and you’re not aware of anyone who does, you can still help spread the word, because who knows how many of your Twitter followers or Facebook friends might have a split tear? Dr. Berger thinks it may be as common as a tear of the ACL in the knee, but because it isn’t widely known it remains undiagnosed in countless patients, as it was in Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Jayson Werth…until he came to see Dr. Berger. So please post the link to this post on the News Blog, or to this post here on SMUG, to your Facebook profile, or send it out as a Tweet to your followers. If you’d like to be even more involved, you also could do a blog post about the Twitter chat and could embed the Twitter search widget you see above in your post or in your blog’s sidebar. Go here to get the code.
As Dr. Berger says, this is a relatively unusual case of an injury that is debilitating but is easy to diagnose with a highly sensitive and specific test and also can be easily treated, with 95 percent success. It all comes down to knowing what to look for, and that depends on spreading the word.
I hope you will join us in this experiment. It’s not about getting more patients for Mayo Clinic; if it really is as common as an ACL injury, there’s no way Mayo and Dr. Berger could treat everyone. And in fact, in our News Blog post about the Twitter chat we are planning to post a list of several surgeons at other hospitals that Dr. Berger has trained in the fovea sign and in treatment of the UT split tear.
It’s about helping to cut a few years off the typical diffusion time for medical innovations, so patients with this unexplained wrist pain can get the help they need to be restored to full, pain-free function.
We have another interesting element of this experiment I look forward to announcing tomorrow morning, so stay tuned….