• Article
  • July 9, 2018

Connecting with Families at the Intersection of Medicine and Media

From social media and blogs to Alexa and Google Play, Wendy Sue Swanson talks about the future of digital health.

Wendy Sue Swanson, M.D., M.B.E., is a general pediatrician and chief of digital innovation at Seattle Children's Hospital, as well as a prominent voice for pediatric medicine. She writes Seattle Mama Doc, the first pediatrician-authored blog for a major children's hospital. She's produced more than 100 episodes of the Seattle Mama Doc podcast and has tens of thousands of followers across multiple social media channels.

Children's Hospitals Today recently caught up with Swanson to discuss her role as a voice for pediatric medicine. Here's an excerpt of that conversation.

What path led you to become the "Seattle Mama Doc"?

It came out of an authentic discovery. Before my pediatric residency, I studied bioethics. During that time, I was thinking about the dynamics of the communication of medical information. Specifically, what happens when medical information is shared in a broadcast journalistic sense.

Let's say a parent watches a medical piece on "The Today Show"—how does this impact information gathering, decision making and communications with his or her doctor?

After I finished my residency, I went into full-time practice. I wanted to be a general pediatrician, but knew I also wanted a career in communication, and social media fell right into my lap. I began to think, "Wait a second, people are learning about health information on Facebook, and they're also sharing and reading on mommy blogs."

And so began my journey. It dawned on me that I couldn't wait any longer to think about the structure of my communication plan. I pitched to the hospital the idea of a blog.

In 2010, I wrote a post called "2 is the New 1" about the data behind kids in car seats facing the back of the car between the ages of 1 and 2—highlighting that kids were 75 percent less likely to die if they were facing the back of the car. It went totally viral.

Virtually overnight, it had tens of thousands of views. All of a sudden, I began to understand we can have a pediatrician within arms' reach of all the expertise of a hospital—and with the credibility that a hospital can provide—to join the movement of information sharing.

Did that blog post serve as an "ah-ha" moment for you to realize the influence you could have through the internet and social media?

It actually came before that. I'll never forget this mom who came in with her one-year-old daughter for her annual checkup. Jenny McCarthy had been on "Oprah" the night before, and when I told the mother we were going to be giving her daughter vaccinations, she just looked at me and bit her lip. I said, "What? Did you see Oprah yesterday?" She said, "Yes."

I launched into the scientific explanation and although she went ahead and did the vaccine, I knew that she wasn't comfortable. It dawned on me in that moment there was all this misinformation out there, and it was hard for her to unlearn it in a quick visit where I was trying to regain her trust and recommend the vaccine. She did what she was supposed to do, but it bugged me that I don't think she believed in it.

It was obvious to me I could work for science and safety potentially more productively than I could in the exam room. I didn't want to sit on my hands anymore. I could not limit my role as a pediatrician to one patient at a time, when I was afforded the opportunity of these tools to have a one-to-many communication method.

How did you evolve into your role as Seattle Children's Hospital's chief of digital innovation, and what are you working on now?

In 2013, I pitched to our CEO at the time an executive summary to found the Center for Digital Health. I was looking to develop and build a new technology, something that ultimately became Virtual Handshake, an online tool that electronically "introduces" families to their health care team prior to a hospital visit. The success of that technology allowed me to secure funding for some people and a small budget to begin the digital health effort at Children's.

We've built two different apps in the last year, and we've built out Virtual Handshake. We've built an entire curriculum around transplantation medicine. We give families an iPad following transplantation that includes peer-to-peer and interactive educational tools so they can understand transplantation and medication adherence.

Right now, I'm thinking of spending a significant part of our efforts in the next year working in voice technology: How are we going to use Alexa? How am I going to get "Seattle Mama Doc" to the world using a Google Play speaker? What's the opportunity to potentially be an early trusted pediatrician voice there, and can we garner attention?

My job is to always be a little bit uncomfortable and to always nudge the hospital. I don't know if I'm going to make or save the hospital any money, but I'm a servant to understanding these new tools in communication and to see how we might be able to reach more families more efficiently and serve our mission.

Is there an area in pediatric medicine where you'd like to see more innovation?

We talk a lot about patient-centered care because we all believe in that, but I don't know we are pouring the resources and attention necessary into making sure patients and families have the data they need.

We've launched patient portals, but have we given our patients and their families the whole suite of tools to help them, and have we made it convenient for them? Are they text messaging with their providers? Are they scheduling online? Are we using the OpenNotes philosophy?

It's not just scheduling appointments through the portal, but they should be able to access all their labs and all their doctors' and nursing notes. You can order a pizza on Domino's and you can track the pizza on an app and know where it is at any point.

But we take tissue and labs from children and we let parents just sit and wait, right? "We'll call you when we get it and if you don't hear from us, you just assume it's normal." I've said that for years in practice because that's how it built efficiency for me, but I haven't built anything to make sure that the parents and families know that the minute the laboratory is back, they'll be able to see it.

We haven't really built transparencies into the system. I can't champion that concept enough.

What advice would you give to other practitioners looking to expand their voice through social media?

Strategically figure out what problem you're going to solve. Whatever the problem is, be very specific and strategic around using a tool to solve that problem. Don't go online to be online—go online to solve a problem.

You don't have to be a professional blogger. You don't have to be a professional writer. You don't have to be podcaster. Be a pediatrician or a leader or an executive who wants to accomplish something. Then be strategic on using the tools to do that.

Send questions or comments to magazine@childrenshospitals.org.