A patient is diagnosed with a Chiari malformation—a condition in which brain tissue protrudes into the spinal canal—and posts a message on an online
forum seeking advice.
Three others comment about their own or their family members' struggles with the disorder.
The platform is Mayo Clinic's new online community, open to all who register, whether or not they are
patients. One user asks for hotel recommendations near Mayo's Phoenix campus; another laments that her son suffers from pre-frontal cortex dysfunction
and abuses alcohol.
The network, which launched July 5, is the latest innovation from a hospital system that has embraced the Internet and social media as a means of
reaching a worldwide audience.
Mayo was recently named among Thomson Reuter's list of the industry's top 10 hospital groups, and Ragan.com is examining the Internet communications
strategies of these institutions.
The Rochester, Minn.-based hospital's network connects people seeking information, often from patients who have already visited Mayo, says Matt Feyen,
senior director for the patient consumer market. Mayo is not alone in seeing the value of this. NorthShore University HealthSystem in suburban Chicago
recently launched a patients-only forum, allowing them to harness social media to find answers and crowd-source questions.
"It made sense for us to engage and say,'OK, you're part of the Mayo Clinic culture, you're part of the Mayo Clinic environment,'" Feyen says. "'Let
us enable that within the Mayo Clinic experience.'"
Mayo is a world-renowned nonprofit with 56,000 employees and campuses in Arizona, Florida and Minnesota, treating 1 million patients a year. While most
hospitals largely draw locals, some 25 percent of Mayo's patients a year come from more than 500 miles away, says Lee Aase, director of the Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media.
To reach them, Mayo is devising a coordinated online strategy involving both its own websites and its Twitter and Facebook accounts and YouTube channel.
Mayo's three primary websites have drawn 20 million visits monthly so far this year. Mayo.edu is a source of
information on research and educational opportunities at the affiliated medical school. Mayoclinic.com is a
general consumer health information site, while Mayoclinic.org is for patients seeking treatment, information
about visits, or physician biographies.
But Mayo is increasingly seeking to integrate the sites. "To some extent we feel that all consumers are a patient of somebody, if not Mayo clinic,"
Feyen says. "So to differentiate between those two audiences [patients and outside consumers] is not something we wanted to do moving forward."
The sites are maintained with web publishing tools like Dreamweaver, Commonspot and FarCry, along with one that is internally built.
The hospital group is known for the breadth of its information on health. If you search the Web for conditions like "chronic cough" or "high blood
pressure" Mayo's information pops up on the first page of results.
It takes staffing to maintain this kind of presence. Some 40 people on its content team play a role in the creation and publishing of content on the
three sites, among them copy editors, research librarians and Web production staff, Feyen says. This doesn't include medical reviewers or expert
bloggers, who also play a significant role in reviewing content prior to publication.
In addition, the center for social media has nine staffers, about five of whom produce content. But the team is also active in training others, and it
is working with HR to begin incorporating social media into new employee training.
Mayo does a major review of all its 8,000-10,000 pieces of content about every two years, updating as needed, Feyen says. But when the science changes
rapidly, the updates can be done continuously.
Content tends to be more frequently revised on topics where there is a higher volume of published medical literature, Feyen says. These include
subjects like nutritional guidelines and information on cancer and Alzheimer's and cardiovascular diseases. Mayo also updates its pages on changes in
clinical protocols and on health risks that could seriously affect millions of consumers.
"The goal is to ensure that we're updating more dynamic content frequently," Feyen says.
For its website, Mayo not only creates original information, but licenses to reproduce content from Thomson Reuters' Micromedex.
Mayo claims a long-time leadership in use of social media tools, citing its popular YouTube channel, 200,000 Twitter followers and 53,000 Facebook
connections. It features a Podcast Blog and News Blog, and has created a Sharing Mayo Clinic blog to allow patients and employees to highlight stories.
On such sites, consumers are welcome to sound off, and Mayo has a customer service team that will respond to complaints if necessary. Besides, Mayo
welcomes other perspectives.
"There may be new information out there," Feyen says. "There may be different types of treatment that we don't mention on our site."
Like most institutions, Mayo posts news articles about its research and treatment advances. Originally, the hospital system was using social media to
facilitate storytelling and help journalists understand what was happening at the clinic, Aase says.
"We could do that more easily through a YouTube video than maybe some of the traditional media relations methods," he says.
The clinic creates video with a newsy format for both YouTube and its "Medical edge" program, which produces 90-second pieces for TV stations and other
interested parties in the U.S. and Canada. "Medical edge" is 11 years old, but its reach has been boosted by YouTube.
"Even back then you were starting to see some of the TV stations having difficulty being able to afford a dedicated health producer or a health
reporter," Aase says.
Smaller markets are more likely to run the pieces unchanged, he says, but stations tend to add other interviews and otherwise reshape the pieces in
major cities like Los Angeles and New York. One recent video looked at how technologies from robots and video games are helping surgeons perform more
precise and effective operations for patients.
Mayo measures return on its online investment in several ways. Web traffic indicates an interest in the hospital system, and there are obvious benefits
when patients can use the Internet to pay bills, look up lab results or securely message members of their medical team. Likewise, everyone benefits
when patients are more informed and involved in their health decision-making.
Which is why Mayo plans to continue pumping the resources necessary to sustain and better integrate its websites and social media.
Says Feyen: "We're really trying to leverage everything that we've built to create an ideal user experience."
Mayo's new online community is rich with ways to source information, ranging from its Twitter feed to interaction with staff. But the
patient-to-patient exchanges offer something deeper than pages of facts. They give people a way to talk about the pain that accumulates around
One parent writes, "i lost a child at 2½ months 7 years ago still so sad any one understand this[?]"
Another user offered consolation, and recommended counseling.
"I've been amazed at how quickly people have engaged with each other," Feyen says. "That's what it's all about."