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A signal moment has happened: When a major business authority with no history in healthcare speaks up about a shift in the wind, it’s worth noting. And this time it’s a great sign for participatory medicine, because the news is that hospitals are engaging with patients.

rohitMy company’s been working with hospitals the last few months, and it’s surprising and hopeful how eager they are to use social technologies. Last week social media visionary Rohit Bhargava at Olgivy (see Wikipedia page on social media optimization) wrote on Ogilvy’s blog about how hospitals have been “quietly innovating with using social media without receiving much attention or credit for it.”

Based on statistics that Ed Bennett has been tracking, 367 hospitals are using social media such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Bhargava mentions several case studies emerging from hospital social media programs, including Henry Ford Hospital’s Twitter-based Q&A during an actual brain surgery and a discussion of “the public option” on Paul Levy’s great hospital CEO blog, “Running a Hospital.”

Says Bhargava, “For those hospitals who have become sophisticated in their use, leveraging blogs, Twitter and Facebook, they often have built a significant patient channel that could be useful to partner with in order to reach for various marketing reasons, including polling, identifying potential spokespeople and crafting marketing strategy for new products.” The potential value for the e-patient is clear, and it’s great to see hospitals lead the way.

Meanwhile the FDA is considering what the rules should be for pharma companies using social media tools.

“Right now there’s been no definition of what can be done and what can’t be done,” said Mark Senak, senior VP at Fleishman Hillard and author of the blog Eye on FDA. “Regulation over social media has been taking place by warning letter rather than by standards that people can adhere. Certainly, the industry has been inhibited and lagged behind less-regulated industries in the use of social media, and that’s hurt pharmaceuticals because that’s how people are building their brands these days.”

But is this just about building brands? Bill Drummy of Heartbeat Digital is quoted as saying “I don’t view social networking as primarily an advertising vehicle at all. It’s about value exchange, creating communities of interest, and is not about a traditional advertising space. Those who use it that way do not fare well.” Indeed, e-patients can hope that hospitals, pharmaceuticals, and other healthcare entities don’t forget the “social” in social media.

E-patients who’ve been using social technology since ‘way before marketers coined the “social media” label weren’t exactly waiting for hospitals, pharma, and the rest of the healthcare industry to get on board. But there’s a growing inevitability – hospitals, for instance, realize that physicians and nurses just out of school will be digital savvy and will expect social media to be part of the environment as a matter of course.

In late October, the coalition of physicians, patients, and social media mavens who have extended Tom Ferguson’s thinking about the rise of the e-patient through this blog will launch a new online publication. The new peer-reviewed Journal of Participatory Medicine will invite the kind of evidence-based research we need to truly understand the impact of social technology on healthcare, especially the democratization of health-related knowledge and the changing role of the informed and empowered patient in the process of treatment. Pending launch, you can find us at Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.