When Jenny McCarthy, a former Playboy bunny, claimed that vaccines were linked to autism, Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson knew she had to do something.
Her patients at The Everett Clinic, who saw the episode on Oprah, were concerned.
"They weren't necessarily more informed, but they were scared," Swanson says. "I couldn't wait any longer to get out on social media."
She decided her best bet to help parents get the right information was to start a blog. You could call it her "ah-ha" moment.
At that time, Seattle Children's Hospital, where she's on staff, was looking for a blogger.
Jennifer Seymour, the hospital's director of digital media and content strategy, says the marketing and communications team had been tossing around the idea of starting a blog for a year, but hadn't found the right person. The team and Swanson were working on another project when "the stars aligned," Seymour says.
"We wanted the blog to have an authentic voice and be valuable to our readers," Seymour says. "Dr. Swanson shared inspiring ideas about how to strengthen the connection between patients and providers."
It was important to both Seattle Children's and to Swanson that it be written in the doctor's own voice.
"I wanted to maintain ownership of the content, typos and all," Swanson says. "It shouldn't be scrubbed or marketed. It should be about what it feels like to be a doctor and a mom."
Swanson is responsible for writing, editing and publishing blog posts. She also manages her own Facebook and Twitter accounts. The marketing department provides her with PR assistance and promotes the blog, shares quarterly reports of the analytics, and compensates her for her time. There are two planning meetings per month; that's when Swanson and the team talk about future posts and speaking engagements.
"The content is hers," Seymour says. "She comes up with the ideas. We're not editing it. The audience wants to hear from her directly. She cares about every one of her readers and responds to them, even during her busy clinic days."
She certainly has a lot of readers. In the past three years, she's reached:
- 250,000 people on her blog
- 700,000 blog page views
- 500 media placements
- 12,000 Twitter followers
- 40 speaking engagements
For Swanson, though, it isn't about the numbers. It's about taking care of patients. Take a look at this recent tweet:
Best ROI on pediatric blogging -- grabbed in the hallway by a new Mom this AM who says, "I love your blog." Metrics, schmetics. #hcsm
Controversial blog posts
Swanson isn't afraid of hot-button issues. She's written about circumcision, the HPV vaccine, and, most recently, gun control.
Sometimes, these posts draw some good ol' Internet vitriol from commentators. But Swanson isn't going to let that stop her.
"I don't want to have formalized messaging—it should be earnest," Swanson says. "I feel obligated to talk about these issues."
Seymour isn't deterred by negative comments, either.
"The way I look at is this: If you trust a surgeon with a scalpel, you can trust them with a pen," Seymour says. "She's an expert in pediatric health, and we support her."
Seymour says the blog aligns with Seattle's mission statement.
"Her passion to help parents do what's right for their children aligns with our mission—that children should grow up without illness or injury. We love that she investigates new research findings and tells parents how she would use that information herself—as the mother of two young boys, she's able to stimulate a conversation with her peers, parents, and the media," Seymour says.
Should physicians be compensated for social media activity?
Swanson sees patients at the clinic twice a week and an extra day each month. She spends between 30 and 40 hours a week on social media (learning, reading, following, reading, writing, using social tools). In addition, she also works for a local Seattle NBC affiliate, reporting every week about health issues and writing copy for its website.
After surviving cancer last year, she says 2013 will be focused on "really taking all that I've learned and being more thoughtful about my energy and work."
It's about the simple things: Instead of checking her phone first thing in the morning, she now takes more time to eat breakfast with her children.
With all the work she puts into social media, Swanson and Seymour agree that she should be compensated for her time—and so should other physicians on social media.
"I believe that being on social media is part of a doctor's clinical responsibility," Swanson says. "If they are sitting at a computer, reflecting on a new study, and using their medical expertise and training—they should be compensated. Or there should be time scheduled into their clinic days to spend on social media. That's the new reality. That's our obligation as health care providers."
Seymour says it's essential to compensate a doctor for their time on social media.
"To have a blog and spend this much energy on it—it takes time," Seymour says. "It's not only a way to reach patients or people within your own hospital walls, but inform people around the world. A physician's day is pretty packed. It's difficult for them to find extra time on the weekend or evenings. In order for them to have the appropriate time to devote to it, you have to compensate them."
Why taking care of patients fuels her work
Swanson says social media gives her a deeper connection with other doctors and families. She's made meaningful friendship with colleagues across the country, sits on the advisory board for the Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media, and is a sought-after speaker for health care conferences.
Yet she really loves taking care of patients.
"It's deeply satisfying for me to help families," Swanson says. "I don't want to give up my clinic work."
David Sibery, who manages The Everett Clinic, calls Swanson a "pioneer of social media."
"She's out in front of the curve," Sibery says. "I don't think social media has caught up to where she wants to go with it."
Being in the clinic serves her sense of purpose, Swanson says. Sometimes, people give her advice about her next career move by telling her, "You should stay in the clinic to remain credible."
Swanson laughs at that idea.
"I'm not going to go and take care of people to maintain my credibility," Swanson says. "I don't do this to be credible—I don't ever want to be seen as a doctor who is a doctor, just to remain 'credible.' This is the place that fuels my purpose. This is what drives me to go out and do the media work. Without my clinical work, I wouldn't work as hard as I do."
Seymour is happy about the partnership between the hospital and Swanson. With recent data showing that one-third of patients go online as a self-diagnostic tool, Seattle Children's knows that Swanson is in the right place.
"We made a decision to meet parents where they are," Seymour says. "So many of them are researching health info online, it's our responsibility to share our knowledge and research. What she writes and how she communicates with folks is so meaningful. We feel lucky to work with her."
Jessica Levco is co-editor of Ragan's Health Care Communication News.