Hospital-acquired Infections and Social Media

The authors explore whether real-time reporting will reduce the spread of infection

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A young girl's life-threatening infection by the dangerous bacterial strain C.difficile, contracted in the one environment where her health should have been safe - a hospital - a made front page news in USA Today in August. Multi-page coverage of hospital-acquired infections reminded readers across the country that the U.S. healthcare system is a far cry away from managing deadly bacteria that accounts for 30,000 deaths each year in the U.S. alone, not to mention the half-million Americans who suffer from infection by such dangerous bacteria as C.difficile.   

The USA Today article featured the faces of 16 victims of highly publicized hospital-acquired infections, demonstrating that the reporting and management of hospital-acquired infections is still a challenge that many healthcare institutions continue to wrestle with despite the efforts of many private and public health and patient advocacy organizations. 

Reporting Requirements
Over 30 states have established hospital-acquired infection public reporting requirements.

For example, since 2005, the State of New York has required hospitals to report select hospital-acquired infections to the New York State Department of Public Health and compares this data against national reporting rates. And the State of California's Department of Public Health has created an interactive infection heat map based on data from medical lab and patient records. 

However, there are significant doubts as to whether hospitals are reporting the most dangerous types of infections. 

Real-time Reporting and Social Media
As public health analysis and reporting becomes more sophisticated, hospitals will have to adopt a more transparent, real-time approach to reporting. 

Social media provides an interesting new perspective into the dissemination of information about hospital infections. Over the last year, terms such as "hospital-acquired infection," "MRSA," and "superbug" have trended upward on social media channels. It's likely the frequency of those terms will increase at a faster rate, based on new, strict infection reporting requirements enacted at national and state levels.   

Public health organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and patient advocacy organizations such as Campaign Zero (an organization founded to eliminate deaths from hospital-acquired infections) have started using social media to communicate important alerts.

Increasing Visibility in the Digital World
iMedSocial, a startup social media consultancy focused on the healthcare industry, performed an analysis of this trend over a six month period (Feb. 1, 2012 - Aug. 1, 2012). The findings demonstrate that hospital-related infections continue to garner more visibility in the digital world. 

During this period, terms associated with hospital-acquired infections received 17,640 online mentions at an average of 96.4 mentions per day. Mentions peaked on May 17 at 207 and troughed on June 9 at 41. Closer examination of the results revealed a negative sentiment associated with key search terms at a rate of 17% versus a positive sentiment rating of 11%, and the remaining results were found to be neutral. 

Message boards and forums constituted 24% of mentions of hospital infection-related terms: blogs for 17.91% of results; microblogs, 4.80%; social networks, 10.46%; other media types, 42.63%.

If we isolate our search to microblogs alone, we find 846 hits over this time period with an average of 4.6 mentions per day, with a peak of 35 on May 4 and a trough of no mentions on Feb. 1.  A closer examination of relevant hits from a geographical standpoint revealed California had the largest number at 157, Missouri with 95, Texas with 78 and New York with 53. This indicates that stories related to hospital-acquired infections most frequently make references to California, Missouri, Texas and New York.

Subject Hits
To better understand the context of the use of these key words with regard to the subject of hospital-acquired infections, we compared hits on this subject, including words associated with handwashing and hygiene, with hits on this subject that included a colloquial or scientific reference to infection ("MRSA," "superbug," "bacterial"). On average, we identified a ratio of roughly 5:1, or 5 references to infection for every reference to hand washing on a given day. Regardless of the platform, peak references to hospital-acquired infections were never matched by peak references to handwashing, and in fact hand washing was barely discussed in this context at all, even though handwashing by hospital personnel has been shown to be one of the most effective ways to combat such infections.

In an age of information where the capability to report hospital-acquired infections in real time via Facebook, Twitter or internal employee portals is not just a possibility, it is a reality, hospitals should consider social media policies that can help an organization respond to reports of hospital-acquired infections and enable an organization to demonstrate the ways in which they are reducing hospital-acquired infections.

The USA Today article referenced 5 healthcare organizations that have been commended for their efforts to reduce hospital-acquired infections. This is positive press that every hospital or healthcare system can aspired to receive with the help of a strong social media strategy. 

Helen C. "Kate" Liebelt is a seasoned healthcare consultant with experience in strategy, operations and compliance consulting for hospitals, healthcare systems, as well as pharmaceutical and medical devices companies and not for profit organizations. She has held management positions at major healthcare companies including Baxter Healthcare Corp., TAP Pharmaceuticals Inc. and Takeda Global Research & Development Inc. as well as global public relations firm Fleishman-Hillard, Inc. and major consulting firms. Email Helen at KL@iMedSocial.com. Follow her on Twitter at @KLiMedSocial. D'vorah Graeser, PhD, is the co-founder of iMedSocial, which provides social media analysis, support and guidance for those who are passionate about healthcare, innovation and technology. She is also the founder and chief executive officer of Graeser Associates International (GAI), an international health care intellectual property firm. Dr. Graeser has been a U.S. patent agent for over 15 years and has extensive experience in the biomedical and computer fields. Contact Dr. Graeser at info@imedsocial.com or follow her on twitter @DGiMedSocial.

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