Social Media and EMRs: Worlds Apart?

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.

About the author

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger 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.


  • Social media and EMR are a natural fit. Think about what social media really enables. The ablity to stay connected, following different strings of info/story weaved by connected people. Say for instance you and your friends went to the Grand Canyon, one person took pictures while the other did the cooking,planning, and was responsible for entertainment during the trip. When they try to retell the story to their friends, each will be able to add different aspect of the story and with social network platforms such as facebook, this is possible.
    Now take the story above, and insert 2 doctors and change the trip taken to be a patient going from a diagnosis to a surgery and afterwards trying to tell other physician providers on went on. If we design the EHR with this capability, then medicine will be improved.
    A social media version of electronic medical records would have EMHR, HIE and PHR as one product not as separate.

    Andre Vovan, MD MBA

  • Andre,
    EMR, HIE and PHR sound so boring compared to a social media like interaction between 2 doctors or a patient and doctor. I’m not sure we can blame everything on branding alone, but I think it’s part of it.

    However, the large number of EHR vendors can’t create the rich social media experience. One person on Facebook couldn’t communicate with someone on MySpace just like someone on GE Centricity can’t communicate with someone on Mitochon. At least not yet. Needless to say there are competitive reasons not to open up that communication that are hard to overcome. I am hopeful though.

  • I agree w the acronyms of ehr phr hie. I would prefer more sexy but it is healthcare related. But what is important is the availability for these interaction to become. The issue currently is the adoption of proprietary ehr is creating digital siloed islands which then require lot of cost and complexity to connect. Social networking is successful based on 2 key parts. One is that it is ffree and second is that all the person can create accounts and are on the same platform at the outset. The cloud is key.

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