How Social Media Can Be a Pain in the Corporate Ass

I happened to recently come across two articles about two specific examples of social media shaking up the healthcare industry. I’m not sure how long these will be available without registering for the site, so I’ll quote some key bits.

The first article is called Blog tests hospital leaders’ patience.

The gist:

In August, [Paul] Levy, chief executive of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, began writing an Internet blog called Running a Hospital, about the inner workings of an academic medical center. Since then, he’s broken a few unwritten rules.

Here’s a specific example of a rule he is breaking:

In a recent entry on his website and two previous ones, Levy, saying patients have a right to know, posted the percentage of Beth Israel Deaconess patients who get infections each month from intravenous tubing inserted by staff, known as central line infections, which can cause serious harm and even death. (The hospital’s rate has fluctuated, but five or six patients got infections in August, while none did in January, he said.)

He challenged other hospitals to publicize their infection rates, a step that is also being pushed nationally by patient advocates, including Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports. The Globe asked several other Boston teaching hospitals if they would release their monthly central line infection rates, which they have collected internally for years. They all said no, at least for now, but added they expect to in the near future.

The closing bit is priceless.

In his blog, Levy also has needled Partners HealthCare, the parent organization of Mass. General and Brigham and Women’s, about their formidable market share of patients, saying they get paid more from insurers because of their size.

Partners executives declined to comment. “What’s a blog?” said chief operating officer Thomas Glynn when asked about Levy’s blog.

Spokeswoman Petra Langer said that overall, people at Partners are not a blogging group. “They’re too busy,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Still, Glynn said, printouts of certain entries occasionally get passed around the executive offices

In an e-mail to the Globe, Levy wrote, “If they don’t like what I say or how I say it, they should post comments in rebuttal.”

Levy’s blog is called Running a Hospital.

The second article is from October. It is about a Cambridge, MA based company called Sermo. Sermo is a social networking site for physicians. Sermo’s goal is for physicians to share upcoming trends and potential alarms they see during their day. The users then rate the information in a Digg-style format so that the most important content rises to the top. The article is called Website seeks doctors’ take on drugs, and firms are crying foul.

How is Sermo being a pain in the corporate ass?

With its debut two weeks ago, the Sermo site generated debate by prominently featuring postings from several doctors saying that Pfizer Inc.’s cholesterol-fighter Lipitor induces vivid and repeated nightmares in some patients as well as a posting by one doctor that said the diabetes drug Byetta, marketed jointly by Amylin Pharmaceuticals and Eli Lilly and Co., was associated with “sudden death” in 50 patients.

There has been almost nothing published about either problem in medical literature. Both drug companies, which reviewed the website after questions from the Globe, said the physicians’ anecdotal observations appeared to be inaccurate.

Pfizer said no scientific studies or clinical trials have shown any link between Lipitor, the world’s biggest-selling prescription drug, and nightmares. “It’s not true. This is such a strange situation with this website,” said Dr. Gregg Larson , Pfizer’s vice president for cardiovascular drugs. “It’s not scientifically based. It’s not clinically based.”


Responding to complaints from Pfizer and Lilly, Palestrant, the founder, said the site is intended to generate debate within the medical community. He said it acts as a preliminary sounding board for investment firms that subscribe to the site.

For instance, he said, the physician who anonymously posted the observation that Byetta was responsible for 50 sudden deaths did not receive any supporting comments from other physicians. The inference, he said, was that the posting was of low value. It nonetheless remained on the site, as do all postings. Regarding Lipitor, Palestrant said the physician reports of a nightmare link suggest it deserves further study.

These two sites just drill home the point that you might as well join the conversation, because they’re going to be talking about you anyway.


  1. On March 20th, 2007 at 1:20 pm Paul Levy said:

    Thanks, Adam. I haven’t figured out, either, why people don’t repond — even anonymously. It is like saying “no comment” to a reporter, who will then write the story without your point of view.

  2. On March 25th, 2007 at 9:53 am Clifford Goldsmith said:

    I think we need to create the right environment for the kind of interaction that Paul talks about to talk place in the medical world. Physicians still practice medicine in isolation – just them and their patient. As medical students we challenge ourselves to cram as much medical knowledge as we can into our heads. And we continue to do that throughout our medical careers by attending conferences and reading the formal medical literature. At the point of care we see it as the ultimate quiz show – to read the question carefully by listening to the patient and their family, to search all the archives of minds for possible options and ultimately to make the best matches between our embedded knowledge and the facts as we see them in that moment. Then we pass the puzzle on to another specialist, many times without even knowing whether our diagnoses were correct.

    Medical departments need to begin to think of themselves as a team and the knowledge and experience of the group as far greater and more valuable than the knowledge and experience of any one individual. And we need to realize that the body of medical knowledge emerging from the distributed interaction of several physician groups is even more valuable. We need to design networked systems that allow clinical care to be based on the knowledge and experience of many physician groups and not just the individual or even our single department. This is a complete mind-shift and requires a new infrastructure or environment for this to occur. Technologies like blogs, wikis, social networking and social media are very important supporting elements of this environment, but they are only a small part of the entire new process. In the end, it will require our medical schools and teaching hospitals to train new physicians to think and work in this new environment. Sermo’s social networking environment and Paul Levy’s blog are great starts Рwe are moving in a good direction.

  3. On March 25th, 2007 at 1:15 pm Adam Darowski said:

    Thanks for giving me this background, Clifford. It’s good to see why this type of information doesn’t seem to be spread openly. All I know is I love a renegade rule-breaker.

    We need to design networked systems that allow clinical care to be based on the knowledge and experience of many physician groups and not just the individual or even our single department. This is a complete mind-shift and requires a new infrastructure or environment for this to occur.

    I’m sure the folks at Sermo would raise their collective hand right now and say, “That’s me!” Of course, Sermo is a third party with their financial motivations (on top of their obvious noble motivations to set up a network like this). It will be interesting to see if over time institutions develop their own internal social networks for sharing experiences and knowledge.

  4. On April 24th, 2007 at 11:49 am Stephen said:

    The light at the end of the tunnel is theCluetrain, and it stops at Sermo. Pfizer and Eli Lilly need to get on.