Cincinnati Children's Blog

Social networks can enhance health care

Peter Margolis is co-director of the Center for Health Care Quality, Director of Research, Division of Health Policy and Clinical Effectiveness

You are,  no doubt, familiar with Facebook and Wikipedia and similar sorts of sites. After all, you’re reading this blog.  And those kinds of networks are known for helping people connect to others despite physical distance. Wikipedia in particular harnesses the brain power of millions to create an amazing on-line resource. (We can debate the accuracy of the information another time; the point today is how it aggregates information.)

Soon, similar social networks will be helping connect patients and doctors from across the country to enhance the spread of innovation and get best-practice care to patients without delay.

This is especially important in how we care for children, and adults, with chronic conditions. Our care model today is, quite frankly, broken. It’s not because caregivers and patients don’t want the system to work. It’s not for a lack of trying.

Right now, the process to get medical information and new discoveries into practice is painfully slow. In part, that’s because many doctors and patients operate in virtual silos and information about what works and doesn’t work isn’t shared widely. For most chronic conditions, there just aren’t enough patients in a single location to have anything close to enough numbers for scientific research.

But social networks can change all that.

Care for chronic conditions is complicated, but social networks can help make it more efficient

We can bring people together to harness their inherent intelligence and inherent motivation to improve care and outcomes. Posting data and outcomes through a social media network will allow providers and patients to see not only what others are doing, but how care is improving.

We recently received an $8.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to expand on our work with social networks. We’ve already seen it work through Improve Care Now, a Crohn’s disease collaborative that involved 16 hospitals across the country and about 2,000 patients. Using a model for systematically collecting data and sharing it openly, care has improved quickly and doctors have seen a 10 percent increase in the number of patients in remission.

Translate that to the entire population and it means 10,000 new children in remission, without new drugs and without spending huge amounts of money (and lots of time) on research and development, according to the researchers.

So-called “collaborative innovation networks” are widely used in other industries to identify new products and redesign public services. This type of innovation has been adopted in many complex systems (but not yet in health care) because the necessary knowledge, skills and tools are beyond the capacity of one place, person or organization.

The NIH grant is from a special fund for highly creative and highly innovative projects. The so-called “transformative R01 grant” is for projects “proposing exceptionally innovative, high-risk, original and/or unconventional research with the potential to create or overturn fundamental paradigms,” according to the NIH.

The five-year grant is to design, implement and evaluate a social network for inflammatory bowel disease, but the plan is to create a system that impacts care throughout medicine.

This has the potential to change the way all chronic care is provided. Change for the better.

This is radically different than what we have done in the past. We are not trying to make one change at a time; we are creating a system that makes it possible for patients and doctors to make many changes – quickly and efficiently – to improve health.

That’s what this is all about.

Peter Margolis, MD, PhD, is a Professor of Pediatrics and Co-Director of the Center for Health Care Quality. He works with practices and health care organizations to assist them in designing better systems of care for children. Dr. Margolis is currently leading center projects in support of the American Board of Pediatrics and the American Board of Medical Specialties.


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