Facebook and MySpace have harnessed the Internet to revolutionize how Americans keep in touch. Could providers of health care do the same?
Indianapolis-based Community Health Network is trying to find out. It has opened its Web site to allow its patients to create their own MySpace-like pages to keep their family and friends informed about their treatment or about their new baby.
Community's Web site also hosts discussion forums for various groups of patients, such as new moms, cancer patients, stroke victims and others.
The idea is not only to provide information to Web users, but to allow them to express their own thoughts and knowledge back to Community and other patients. It's called online social networking.
"Our goal is to be part of a conversation with them," said Dan Rench, vice president of e-business at Community Health Network. He added, "There's definitely a lot of power in social networking from a health care perspective."
Indeed, there's a rising current nationwide of allowing content created by average-Joe Web surfers into the restricted and refined world of health care. Customers can now praise and pan their doctors on the Web sites of Angie's List and Well-Point Inc., both based in Indianapolis. And discussion forums about diabetes, multiple sclerosis and other chronic diseases can be found on sites hosted by Yahoo!, Google and Revolution Health.
In fact, one-third of all Americans used some kind of online social networking last year for health care purposes, according to a January study by iCrossing, a digital marketing firm based in Arizona.
"The engaged consumer is seeking an ongoing dialogue on health-not a oneway, 30-second broadcast TV spot," wrote Jane Sarasohn-Kahn, a health economist, in an April report about online social networking in health care.
Community isn't the only hospital system in Indianapolis trying to do that. St. Francis Hospital & Health Centers in Indianapolis and Clarian North Medical Center in Carmel allow patients to create blogs about their experiences. But instead of operating those pages from the hospital's Web sites, both St. Francis and Clarian have partnered with Chicago-based CarePages.
Community calls its social networking program SharingSites. It launched in early 2006 and last year expanded to include moms and pictures of their babies.
To view SharingSites, visitors can create an account simply by providing basic personal information. They can view all public SharingSites. Patients can make their site private by restricting access.
At any given time, Community's Web site, ecommunity.com, hosts 400 SharingSites. More than two-thirds of the sites are kept private.
Community executives hope not only to give their patients a creative outlet, but also to attract their friends and families to Community's various health services. Rench, Community's vice president of ebusiness, noted that hosting a blog allows patients to communicate with their family and friends more efficiently than by making "50 phone calls."
As patients and visitors look at SharingSites, their screen also shows links to other parts of Community's Web site, which allow them to make appointments with Community physicians, pre-register for office visits, chat with a nurse, send greetings and praises to patients and Community's staff members, or research health topics and procedures.
"It's a service, but it's also a marketing opportunity for us," Rench said.
He said Community has not aggressively promoted SharingSites to patients, but will begin to do so this fall.
So far, patients have been slow to participate. Community has no trouble getting people to start sites. About 80 people do so every month. But of the 115 sites open to public viewing, nearly all have nothing more posted than the most basic information about a newborn baby.
Community has a professional photographer take stock pictures of most babies born at its hospitals. Most SharingSites include that photo, the baby's name, height, weight and the hospital at which it was born.
Noah and Sandy Sturgeon went a bit further. The Indianapolis couple posted five photos on the site after Sandy gave birth to their daughter Kaitlyn in February. The site was viewed 120 times-far more than most. But neither the Sturgeons nor their family and friends used the site to post comments about Kaitlyn's birth.
The Sturgeons could not be reached for comment.
Others, such as the family of newborn John McSmith, professed intentions to use the SharingSite, but didn't. The one and only comment on McSmith's site says, "I have created a sharing site. I will be updating this frequently during my stay [at] Community Hospital North."