Social Media and EMRs: Worlds Apart?

Posted on July 24, 2011 I Written By

Katherine Rourke is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

Over the last year or two, a growing number of healthcare providers and organizations have gotten involved with social media. There’s a great deal of discussion underway in social media networks on how these new new tools can improve patient care, foster better communication between clinicians and even help patients manage their own care more effectively. (If these topics interest you, do a search on the Twitter hashtag #hcsm, and you’ll find lots of interesting content.)

As this discussion grows richer, a small number of healthcare social media innovators are beginning to discuss how to blend the strengths of social media with the power of EMRs.  At first blush, the two might seem worlds apart — one a database with with a nifty UI (we hope!) and the other a set of disarticulated, freewheeling communication channels.

One of the neatest visions I’ve seen of how this might work comes from pediatric gastroenterologist Dr. Bryan Vartabedian, who blogs on social media and medicine at 33 Charts.

Late last year, Dr. Vartabedian offered a detailed vision of an EMR-based “digital dashboard” which would allow doctors to slip easily between social discussion, content and clinical data. The key seems to be that the EMR would handle everything: it would incorporate social media tools, securely log communications, trigger related content and more.

But how long will it be until EMRs include functions like these?  Well, the general consensus seems to be “I wouldn’t hold my breath.”  Consider these comments from Josh Herigon, MPH, writing for the social media/medical blog

Although I dream of the day when we have a system like Dr. Vartabedian’s vision, I am not very optimistic such a system will come to fruition anytime soon…I would be satisfied with truly interconnected EMR systems (i.e.–I can pull up any patient’s chart from any hospital or clinic and see their entire recorded medical history), the elimination of pagers and subsequent replacement with secure smartphone communication systems, widespread use of tablets at the bedside that update the record in real-time so I can finish notes at a workstation, and some level of integration of Facebook/Twitter-like communication within care teams.

I’m not surprised that people are skeptical about linking EMRs and social media together.  While creating the interfaces Dr. Vartabedian describes in his article wouldn’t be a big deal technically, it would represent a big change in how vendors thought about their product. After all, a comprehensive system which juggles both social media and patient data is a much different deal than a patient database with some templates and analytical tools layered on top. The idea of making this kind of shift could give both programmers and vendors a bad case of the vapors.

On the other hand, Dr. Vartabedian is far from the only physician who’s passionate about making better use of social media. If healthcare social media fans can bring more colleagues on board — and slowly but surely, they’re clearly succeeding — EMR vendors will be forced to respond.  Having sat in on many “health 2.0” chats, I can tell you first-hand that there’s a lot of excitement about social media in medicine out there. I wouldn’t be surprised if evangelists defy critics’ expectations and turn social media into an everyday clinical tool.