Highlight HEALTH 2.0 Interview: Phil Baumann

Reading time: 10 – 16 minutes

Phil Baumann is an anomaly; he began his professional career as an accountant, a treasury analyst and an enterprise process designer. After years in the enterprise, he decided to make a difference in healthcare and trained as a registered nurse. Following two years in the ICU, Phil transitioned into the pharmaceutical industry via a clinical research organization (CRO). In his free time, Phil Baumann blogs about how technologies influence us, focusing on healthcare applications of social media. He expounds regularly on his blog (PhilBaumann.com) and on Twitter (@PhilBaumann), discussing how healthcare and other related industries should approach emerging media technologies. Indeed, over the past two years, Phil has averaged over 500 tweets per month on Twitter (top five words: rt, twitter, #hcsm, good, social).

Phil Tweet Cloud
Phil Baumann

Last year, Phil Baumann started CareVocate Strategies, offering organizations personalized, professional and focused strategic guidance on how to understand their relationship with social technologies and communities, and how to best interact with their customers.

In July 2010, Phil started Health Is Social, a website where the healthcare and life sciences learn how to integrate digital and social media into their strategies. I had the opportunity to talk one-on-one with Phil Baumann about CareVocate Strategies, Health Is Social and the future of social media in healthcare. Last month, Phil was also recently invited to be on the Board of Advisors for Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media.

The Interview

Phil Baumann, thanks for taking some time to talk with me. Talk to me briefly about how social media relates to patient empowerment.

Before directly addressing patient empowerment, I’d like to offer a historical perspective of media and then relate that to today’s healthcare environment.

Social media are evolving technologies that are opening up and revealing new ways for people to network and connect with each other, share experiences and locate information. As such, they are destroying traditional power structures and relationships while creating new ones. Just as moveable type extended literacy from the small enclaves of empowered political and religious authorities to the populations they governed, today’s media similarly break open the 20th Century model of limited and unilateral channels of communication. One key difference, however, is that the changes the printed word brought forth transpired over 500 years. Today’s media evolve over just years, months, weeks. And these media are not just one form: they involve text, audio, video and mashups of all three.

The printed word re-shaped how we thought — from a more naturalistic and curvilinear way of viewing the world to a more literal and linear way. It was that way of thinking which the printed word spurred that had the most impact on civilization: it catalyzed technological innovation, mechanized political and economic relationships and ultimately sent us to the moon. Now as far as healthcare is concerned, we are seeing changes in power relationships between patients and providers. The information which traditional medicine held and provided centrally to patients is now leeching away into a Web of decentralized sources. So patients can now search online, connect with others from around the world and share experiences and stories in ways unthinkable only a few years ago.

Information is power; it’s energy that does work. But the information has to be reliable and vetted. And the brain which interprets and uses that information needs to be enlightened enough to make the most of it. Furthermore, it needs to be connected to other brains that can do the right kind of lifting.

And therein lies both the opportunities and dangers of healthcare social media.

  • How do we balance the absolute need for patient empowerment, with the vital need for proper assessment, diagnosis and treatment?
  • How do we ensure that both patients and providers are truly empowered?
  • What differences do different media make in terms of communication, information-gathering and curation?
  • How radically do we need to re-think medicine, healthcare provision and collaboration?
  • Social media in healthcare is forcing us to ask these questions. It’s imperative that physicians and nurses and researchers and others involved in healthcare to voice their views — and even re-think what they’ve learned.

Social media is also, quite interestingly, provided the very forums in which both providers and patients can tackle these questions. My hope is that we can harness social media towards a Healthcare Democracy, and not just a Healthcare Cacophony. That is, people need to work with each other, no over.

In September of last year, you started RNchat. What’s it all about?

The idea of RNchat was something I had working for quite some time. RNchat is about creating an ambient, intimate and pliant environment for nurses to learn about each other, trade experiences, brainstorm about finding better ways to deliver care and just generally socialize and have fun. I had been working on the basic premise of RNchat for a while. One of the reasons I began blogging and forging an online voice was because I realized that nursing didn’t have a strong enough presence online. When Twitter arrived, I saw it as a fundamentally new kind of communications and utility platform that could open up novel ways of connection — not just among people, but among machines. To me, it seemed to be a new kind of internet — a simple technology as deceptively valuable as TCP/IP. I saw the need for nursing to come into the 21st Century. Healthcare in general has been behind social media and I believed that without nurses, any conversation about healthcare adoption of social media and digital technologies would be unacceptably incomplete.

In 2009, Twitter chats grew in popularity. But almost all of them were Twitter chats about social media. They really weren’t much different from each other actually. Nothing wrong with that at all — but I wanted to actually use these media to do the work they claimed to achieve. So I started RNchat. The goal of RNchat was to provide a gateway for nurses into social media of course — but it was more importantly to get them to network with each other, develop comfort with an online voice and to create a unique place where their ideas an experiences could be publicly synergized. It’s been over a year now since it’s launched and has received much attention and has grown rather nicely. I even have a couple other nurses moderating the chats — Ellen Richter (@EllenRichter) and Terri Schmidt (@OnlineNursing).

This month marked the launch of MDchat for physicians. The physicians involved so far has found it to be a positive experience, just like the nurses who joined RNchat early on.

In July at Health 2.0 STAT DC, you talked about nurses and social media, calling them “the last Jedi knights of this republic”. How do you see nurses leveraging social media?

On one hand, I see nurses using social media just like everybody else. On the other, they bring a unique perspective about the human condition which is clearly important in understanding how social media influences our world. Nursers appreciate the subtle nuances of human interaction, communication and behavior. It is, after, what they do: they answer the question “What is the effect of all this healthcare stuff — from disease to treatment — on the human being?” So I see nurses getting more involved over time. The will build and lead new communities and platforms for professionals and patients to do a better job of creating better healthcare for all.

What motivated you to start CareVocate Strategies? My impression of CareVocate Strategies is that you’re focused on consulting individuals and organizations about social media. What are your future plans for the company? Tell me more.

CareVocate was intended to help understand how emerging media are changing how business gets done. I simply mashed up my enterprise, technology and healthcare background to build a business that would make it easier for clients to extend their presence to the Web. I don’t have a traditional marketing background, but over the years I recognized the need for traditional marketing to dovetail with emerging media. I think not having a traditional background has actually enabled me to provide fresh insights into 21st Century marketing. Another way to express this is that I didn’t have to unlearn processes and assumptions that evolved over technological conditions from last century.

When you look forward three or five years, where do you hope to find yourself?

I hope to continue learning about how technology is influencing us. Naturally, I plan to grow my business because we all need to do that. But I’m genuinely interested in paying attention to technology because we don’t have a theory of technology. It’s kind of odd, isn’t it? Technology is one of the most important things in our lives and has been for millions of years. But now, technology’s infiltration into our lives is deepening like never before — and the pace of this infiltration is accelerating at an increasing rate. Before our time, change was something you could deal with over a lifetime. Today, we will have to deal with it in much shorter spans of time. So although I see plenty of business opportunities in the next five years, I also see critical changes to our culture, politics, economy and health. I hope to be heavily involved in asking and perhaps answering the big questions technology is raising. I’ll continue to use social media to make sure others will be involved.

Why did you start Health Is Social? Is it an extension of CareVocate Strategies or something different?

Currently, I’m in the process of shifting towards Health Is Social because I want to expand services. Consulting is fine, but I find strategic and tactical education more valuable propositions. So going forward, I’m going to be offering more online services, including seminars, in addition to conducting workshops and speaking engagements.

How important is it for a company to have a social media strategy? Describe the foundation — what are the essentials for an effective social media strategy?

First, I think it’s very important for a company to have a strategy. I mean: a really clear and executable strategy. The question any business should first ask isn’t “How does social media fit into our strategy?” A more important question is: “Might social media and digital technologies actually change our strategy?” A company’s strategy may or may not need to change because of technologies. It depends on the industry, who the informational customers of the company are, etc. I’ll talk with a business about their needs and break up their approach to social media into three stages: Vision, Mechanics and Process. All three are difficult in their own way, but vital in figuring out before jumping in.

Vision is pretty straightforward. What does this company want to accomplish? Who are its informational customers: end-consumers? Employees? Vendors? Investors? What does this company hope to achieve with these customers? What does it do now and what do they want to do differently that may provide everybody more value?

Mechanics involves the resources, logistics and tools that need to allocated and set into place. Doing social media is far harder than a first look might appear. Resource-allocation, for instance, can be a real challenge. You need people and time and permission. All of those things cost money too — it may not be much, but it could be.

Process is where it all comes together. Vision and Mechanics are nouns. But process is a verb. How will this company execute its vision on a daily, weekly, yearly basis? How will it evaluate effectiveness, refine its mechanics and ensure informational customers are properly taken care of?

It’s very easy to get lost in social media. Even if a business ‘gets’ the value proposition, it needs to work out exactly how it will ‘do’ it. It’s not enough to have conversations and engage with people — its key, but it’s not a strategy that moves the dial. What businesses need to do is value and lead their audience. It used to be that you blasted your passive audience with messages you hoped would stick. But now, your audience has more power than ever before — and their messages can stick on you. And therein lies the greatest opportunity for business social media: you get to lead your audience intimately and talk WITH them. That’s invaluable, and being able to communicate directly with your audience can be a market research Holy Grail.

I know this is a rather open ended question, but I hope you’ll do some hand waving for me. Describe the future of social media in healthcare.

The future of social media in healthcare is wide open. It’s in its infant stage now. Social media is just a small part of a larger party. And the party is technological and personal connection and convergence unlike any before. People are now fascinated and focused on social media. But we are moving towards newer technologies in which Social will simply be embedded into them. Social is only one kind of connection. In healthcare, we’ll see more social connectivity for sure. But we’ll also see more technological and informational connectivity. For example, medical devices will soon ‘tweet’ their data to other medical technologies, and those technologies will connect to patients and nurses and physicians. But the future of social media really depends on how people use them. We need to understand better just how these technologies will work in healthcare and we need to be using the technology — much more than the technologies use us.

About the Author

Walter Jessen, Ph.D. is a Data Scientist, Digital Biologist, and Knowledge Engineer. His primary focus is to build and support expert systems, including AI (artificial intelligence) and user-generated platforms, and to identify and develop methods to capture, organize, integrate, and make accessible company knowledge. His research interests include disease biology modeling and biomarker identification. He is also a Principal at Highlight Health Media, which publishes Highlight HEALTH, and lead writer at Highlight HEALTH.