Digital Tools Improve Patient-Physician Communication, Says Seattle Mama Doc
By Sean Price


Technologies like smart phones and social media can benefit physicians and make their jobs easier by spreading accurate, helpful medical information, the physician-blogger better known as Seattle Mama Doc told the opening session audience at TexMed 2019. But if physicians don’t use those technologies more aggressively, they risk letting other, less-reputable voices become the chief information sources for patients.

Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, a pediatrician, experiments with ways to spread medical information through technology as chief of digital innovation at Seattle Children's Hospital. She cited a Pew Research Center study showing that about 95 percent of Americans now own a cellular phone.

"The reality is that everybody walking around this country basically has a microcomputer in their pocket," she said in her presentation, "How Technology is Transforming Health Care and the Physician-Patient Relationship." "And they might have to wait a month to see you, but they only have to wait about 32 seconds to get an answer on their phone."

Many physicians see technology in a negative light, especially because some poorly designed electronic medical record (EMR) systems put space between physicians and patients rather than bringing them together, Dr. Swanson says. However, physicians should not let that color their view about the potential for technology.

"I will tell you without question that my decade [blogging] online has proved to me that digital tools build intimacy between people," she said.

She related the story about a 2007 study that found gluten-free diets had little or no impact on the behavior of children with autism. News media bypassed reputable medical sources and instead interviewed actress Jenny McCarthy, who has – without evidence and contrary to numerous scientific studies – blamed the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine for giving her child autism.

"We have to be really careful that those … stories that are populating and prolific are countered with you telling your story and sharing your expertise [using electronic outlets]," she said.

Dr. Swanson pointed to surveys showing that patients get about 11 to 20 minutes a year with their general pediatrician. Individual visits are deeply gratifying for her as a physician, but they are not the only way physicians can communicate with patients, she says. Using her blog and social media tools, she found that she can project her message to her patients and their parents – and millions of other people.

Those same tools also help physicians understand patients better because they can "search and listen" to what people are saying outside the exam room, she says.

"You can go on Twitter and say, 'I was in Plano, and I want to know what moms are saying about measles,'" Dr. Swanson said. "You can go on Twitter in live time and see what everybody's saying that have those words in it. [It's a] profound ability to get your own big data and siphon it back down to where you are."

Physicians also can use a blog, social media, and their EMR to update patients about breaking medical situations, such as the current measles outbreaks. For instance, since physicians routinely vaccinate children age 6 to 12 months if they're traveling to a place where measles is common, she wondered if the same routine vaccinations should take place for children in that age range during a domestic measles outbreak. Her local health department responded that there's no need to accelerate the vaccine schedule – unless an infant is exposed directly to measles – because it could blunt a child's immunity over time.

"I could tell that [to patients] one at a time," she said. "But we could tell them that [in] mass with these [electronic] tools."

Technology also is making the work of physicians more transparent. Many patients now expect to be able to have access to physician notes about exams. And other changes are likely to come. For instance, she pointed out that patients who order a pizza can track its progress from cooking to delivery, but they can't get the same service from physicians when they're getting lab results.

"When I had a malignant melanoma and someone cut off a piece of my body and put it down in a path lab, I had to wait for an unknown period of time for someone to call me back to tell me what my cancer looked like," she said. "How bad does that feel? I can track a pizza, but I can't track my body."

While changes in technology can be unsettling, they ultimately can make life easier for both physicians and patients.

"My belief is that that these digital tools will allow you to be more of yourself, more efficient, to let you go home earlier and be with the people that you love and do the things that you love while you also practice," she said.

Last Updated On

May 24, 2019

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Sean Price


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Sean Price is a reporter for Texas Medicine and Texas Medicine Today. He grew up in Fort Worth and graduated from the University of Texas at Austin. He's worked as an award-winning writer and editor for a variety of national magazine, book, and website publishers in New York and Washington. He's also helped produce Texas-based marketing campaigns designed to promote public health. Sean lives in Austin and enjoys hiking, photography, and spending time with his wife and two sons.

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