Online patient communication forums vary among healthcare organizations

October 1, 2005

A Decade Ago, some healthcare companies were questioning the value of having a corporate Web site. Today, the same questions might surround the value of incorporating online patient Web journals, or "blogs." Are they an important communication tool, or a collection site for useless electronic messages?

Short for "Web log," a blog is a Web page that serves as a publicly accessible personal journal for an individual or a group of individuals. Patients tend to blog on specific conditions or diagnoses and their personal responses and coping mechanisms, and quality of treatment at a facility. Bloggers often seek a community of the similarly afflicted or diagnosed in which they can share stories, ideas and self-help tips.

Whatever camp a healthcare organization is in, executives in any industry should keep patient, or customer, blogging on the radar screen, according to Mark Tomeo, content Webmaster for Geisinger Health System in Danville, Pa. "On the Web, a company's reputation can get trashed internationally before its leaders realize it's happening," Tomeo says. "As a hypothetical, let's say a managed care organization declines to cover someone's treatment. Historically, your options were to file an appeal with the HMO, complain to family and friends, or write a letter to the editor of your local paper. With a blog, you can go on the offensive worldwide."

Some healthcare organizations have seen the immediate value of blogs and adopted the technology, when others are taking a wait-and-see approach.

"Because more and more individuals are turning to blogs to voice their opinions, we believe it is something we'll need to keep an eye out for," says Carey Vinson, MD, vice president of quality and medical performance management for Highmark Inc., Pittsburgh. "We view blogs much like we did Internet Web sites in the 1990s-it took some time for those sites to become universally accepted forms of communications. We weren't one of the first companies to launch a Web site, but Highmark's sites are now one of our most important communication tools to our members and various audiences."

At this time, Highmark does not have a structured process in place to monitor patient blogs, according to Dr. Vinson. "A blog is not reflective of our overall customer base, and in most cases, would not accurately reflect how one of our products is working," he says. "Additionally, we do monitor local, regional and national newspapers to see what issues consumers are writing letters to the editor about. We believe that it is very important to stay abreast of what our member community is saying about us and about their experiences with us, so we are not discounting blogs entirely as a future, viable communications tool."

One example of how customer/member feedback impacted a change in the way Highmark does business was its elimination of referrals this year. "We learned through various means-letters, calls to member services and dialogue with our members-that referrals simply weren't convenient," Dr. Vinson says.

Tomeo believes that chat rooms and online bulletin board services might better fill the need for a forum or community of healthcare consumers or of people with particular disease states. "Blogs by nature are too personal and necessarily limited," he says.