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Five Things That Electronic Medical Records (EMRs) Can Learn From Social Media

As a physician who openly despises many aspects of current EMRs (see “How An EMR Gave My Patient Syphilis” or “The Medical Chart: Ground Zero For The Deterioration Of Patient Care” ) I recognize that they are here to stay. And so, since we’re all stuck with these digital middlemen, I have some suggestions (based on popular social media platform functionality) for making them better.

1. Likes. Healthcare providers should be able to “vote up” an excellent note in the medical record. Let’s face it, not all doctors are equally good at documentation. Untold hours of our time are spent trying to cull through pages of auto-populated, drop-down-box checks to figure out what’s actually going on with a patient on a particular day. Once in a while you stumble upon some comprehensive free text that a physician took the time to type after a previous encounter, and suddenly everything becomes clear. If there were a way to flag or “like” such documents, it would help other readers orient themselves more quickly to a patient’s history. A “liking” system is desperately needed in EMRs and would be a valuable time saver, as well as encouragement to physicians who document notes well. Hospitals could reward their best note makers with public recognition or small monetary bonuses.

2. #Hashtags. Tagging systems are sorely lacking in medical records systems, which makes them very difficult to search. Patients make multiple visits for various complaints, often with numerous providers involved. If physicians had the ability to review notes/records unique to the complaint that they are addressing, it would save a lot of time. Notes could be tagged with keywords selected by the author and permanently recorded in the EMR. This would substantially improve future search efforts. Even if the EMR generated 10 search terms (based on the note) and then asked the physician to choose the 3 most relevant to the current encounter, that would be a step in the right direction.

3. Selfies. Medical records would benefit from patient-identifier photographs. In a busy day where 20-30 patients are treated and EMR notes are updated after the patients have gone home, a small patient photograph that appears on each documentation page will serve the physician well in keeping details straight. Patients should be able to upload their favorite portrait to the EMR if the standard one (perhaps taken during the intake process) is not acceptable to them. In my experience, nothing brings back physical exam and history details better than a photograph of the patient.

4. Contextual links. All EMRs should provide links to the latest medical literature (on subjects specifically related to the patient’s current diseases and conditions) in a module on the progress note page. and other reference guides could easily supply the right content (perhaps based on diagnosis codes). This will help physicians practice evidence-based medicine and keep current with changes in recommended treatment practices.

5. Microblogging. Sometimes there are important “notes to self” that a physician would like to make but don’t need to be part of the official medical record. EMRs should provide a free-text module (like a digital sticky note) for such purposes. These sticky notes should not be admissible in court as part of the medical record, and should not be uploaded to the cloud. Content included in these notes could include social information (patient’s daughter just had a healthy baby girl), hunches (patient looks slightly pale today – will check H&H next time if no change), and preliminary information (remember to review radiology result before calling patient next Tues).

It is my hope that EMRs will slowly adopt some best practices from top social media platforms. After all, if millions of users are effectively using voting, tagging, linking, searching and imaging in their daily online lives, it only makes sense to capitalize on these behaviors within the constraints of the medical environment. Maintaining strict confidentiality and appropriate professional boundaries (often missing in the social media world at large) is certainly possible with EMRs. Let’s build a better information capture and retrieval process for the sake of our patients, and our sanity.


At least one EMR is already providing #3 and #5 as part of its software: see Are you aware of any others already implementing these ideas?

10 Steps To Finding A Good Doctor And Having A Great Healthcare Experience

I’m excited to announce that US News and World Report has invited me and some other social-media savvy physicians to participate in a live Twitter chat about how to find a good doctor. The chat will be held on Thursday, March 20th at 2pm EST. You can join the conversation by following the #DoctorFinder hashtag or take the pre-chat poll here.

Most people, including physicians, rely on personal references to find a good doctor. But what do you do when you’re far from home, or you don’t know anyone with firsthand knowledge of local doctors? My parents recently asked me to recommend a physician for them in a state where I knew none of my colleagues personally. This is the 10-step process that I used to help them navigate their way to an excellent specialist – I hope it helps others you find the right doctor as well!

1. Determine what kind of doctor you need. You’d be surprised how many different specialists treat the same symptom – depending on its underlying cause. Take “back pain” for example – should you see a primary care physician, an orthopedist, a neurosurgeon, an anesthesiologist, a rheumatologist, or a rehab specialist to evaluate your symptoms? That depends on the cause of the pain, which might not yet be evident to you. The first step to finding a good physician is to figure out which type is best suited to your potential diagnosis. Bouncing from specialist to specialist can be costly, so if you’re not sure which kind of physician specializes in treating your disease or condition (or if you haven’t been diagnosed yet), start with a primary care physician first.

If you’d like to ask an online physician about your symptoms (or find out which specialist would be the most appropriate for you or your loved one), is my favorite online physician consultant service (note that I answer questions for them.)

2. Compile a list of all the doctors (of the specialty you need) in your area. This list can be generated by your insurance carrier or by an online search of doctor-finder databases such as,, or US News & World Report’s Doctor Finder directory.

3. Narrow online choices by your preferences (available via or databases.) Check out the doctors’:

  • Hospital affiliation(s)
  • Office location(s)
  • Educational background
  • Specialty interests
  • Languages spoken
  • Years in practice
  • Gender
  • Types of insurance accepted
  • Review CV if available (often on affiliated hospital website)
  • Check out patient reviews (take them with a grain of salt in case they are skewed by an unfairly disgruntled patient)
  • Make sure they’re accepting new patients
  • 4. Do an online “background check” of your top choices.

    5. Make an appointment – consider the following qualities in a good physician experience:

    • The team: courteousness of scheduling staff, professionalism of nurses, PA’s, techs, etc.
    • Facilities – cleanliness, comfort
    • Medical records/communication – how will they provide you your data? EMR? Email?
    • Timeliness/convenience

    6. Come prepared

    • Bring your list of medications
    • Bring a list of your medical and surgical history/conditions
    • Bring a list of your allergies
    • Bring contact information for your other physicians/providers
    • Bring your insurance information

    7. Ask the right questions

    • How many procedures (like the one I’ll need) have you performed previously?
    • What are the risks/benefits of the procedure? Alternatives?
    • What should I read to learn more about this?
    • If unsure of diagnosis: What else could this be?
    • Are there other medicines that are less expensive that we could substitute?

    8. Go with your gut

    • Did the doctor explain everything clearly?
    • Did the doctor seem to care about you?
    • Do you trust your doctor to be thorough with follow up?
    • Do you like your doctor?

    9. Get a second opinion

    • If the doctor did not meet your expectations in any significant way, find another one
    • If you want to be sure that you’re on the best path, get a second opinion from one of his/her peers or do it online: eDocAmerica (for generalist questions), Best Doctors (to be matched with top national specialists)

    10. Reward good doctors with good online recommendations so others can benefit. Physician ratings are only as reliable as the reviewers. Help other patients locate good doctors by promoting those who deserve it.

    Outsourcing Relationships And Peddling Influence: Why Social Media Is Not Fun Anymore

    When I first started blogging in 2006, the medical blogosphere consisted of a small group of physicians, nurses, and patient advocates. We knew each other well, and spent time each day visiting our favorite blogs and posting personal comments of encouragement and insight. We developed real friendships, and were optimistic about our brave new online writing frontier. We thought we could change the healthcare system for the better, we believed that our perspectives could influence policy, and we were sure that our writing could help our patients lead healthier lives.

    I remember with great fondness the medical blogger conference that I attended in Las Vegas in 2009. It was the first time I’d met most of my blog friends in real life (IRL) – it was like seeing your favorite pen pals after years of correspondence. We talked all night, had marveled at how a love of writing had brought together a surgeon from South Africa, an ER nurse from California, and a Canadian rehab physician, among others. We figured that social media was the glue that held us all together. Since then, I am sad to say that for me, the glue has lost its stickiness due to dilution by third parties and a glut of poor quality content dividing attentions and exhausting our brains’ filter system.

    Fast forward 7 years and most of my email correspondence is from strangers wanting to embed text links in my blog, people selling SEO services, or PR agencies inviting me to provide free coverage of their industry-sponsored conferences and webinars. I can’t think of a single friend who has left a comment on my blog in the past three months. Sure we see each other’s updates on Facebook and occasionally on Twitter, but I can’t remember the last real conversation we’ve had. Social Media has become irreversibly cluttered, and I’ve never felt more isolated or guarded about the future of medical writing.

    My thoughts on this subject gelled when Twitter announced that LeBron James was following me (along with a select 80,000+ others). Obviously, LeBron has no idea who I am, and I’m almost certain he had nothing to do with his Twitter account following me. He, like many others, has outsourced his online relationship-making. It’s the ultimate irony – using social media to distance yourself from others, while maintaining an appearance of engagement. Sort of like sending a blow up doll of yourself to a party.

    So what keeps some people going on these social media platforms? Perhaps it’s the allure of influence – the idea that many people are listening to you gives a sense of importance and meaning to your efforts. But take a cold hard look at your followers – do you know who most of them are? Or is there a large group of “hotchick123″ type Twitter accounts counted among them? I used to block followers who didn’t seem real or relevant, but it became so much of a chore that I couldn’t keep up. I was overwhelmed by the Huns.

    One could argue that my social media fatigue  is my own fault – I didn’t screen my followers properly, I didn’t follow the “right” people, I haven’t curated my friendships with as much care as I ought to… But I know I’m not alone in my pessimism. A recent Pew Research poll suggests that people are leaving Facebook at a rapid rate. And as far as Twitter is concerned, it’s not for everyone.

    I guess the bottom line for me is that social media isn’t as much fun as it used to be. I miss my blog friends, I miss the early days of being part of an online community. I don’t write as much as I used to because I don’t know my audience by name anymore. This “party” is full of strangers and I don’t like the familiarity that continues in the absence of true friendship.

    Time to spend more of my energy on my patients, family, and friends IRL. And that’s a good lesson for a doctor to learn…

    Dr. Val: Back By Popular Demand?

    I started medical blogging in 2006, and posted something new every day for over two years straight. I met some terrific fellow bloggers in those “early years”, and soon wondered if we might reach a larger audience if we pooled some of our blog content. This blog site (Better Health) was born in October 2008, and soon grew to have over 130 contributors! We developed a large following on Facebook and Twitter and partnered with such prestigious organizations as the CDC, Harvard Health Publications, and the American College of Physicians. We actually grew so large so fast that I had to hire a small staff to help me run the blog… Which became logistically challenging and pretty expensive, rather quickly!

    Because Better Health has always been a labor of love, and not a well- oiled, monetization machine, I eventually had to close the doors. It broke my heart. It was such a shame that a collection of the best medical blog writing just couldn’t be supported financially – at least I couldn’t find a way to do so! In January 2012 I posted a farewell note and decided to continue my social media life on Twitter and Facebook instead.

    A few days ago I noticed a large uptick in Twitter followers and was surprised to see that I had been recommended (by Healthcare IT News) as one of the top 10 physicians to follow on Twitter. In the article it commended my work as a Better Health blogger… the blog that I had recently shuttered.

    I had been toying with the idea of starting a personal blog again because I found it rather challenging to say all I wanted in only 140 characters, and this new influx of followers gave me food for thought. What if I just keep it simple this time? What if I write blog posts at Better Health when the spirit moves (instead of feeling pressured to post something every day or to include 100′s of others in my blog posts?)

    So that’s what I’m going to do. This is just me again – the way it all began. But without any regard for traffic, numbers, or popularity. Maybe only a handful of people will read my posts here. And that’s ok with me! So welcome back to the OLD new me. The cycle is complete?

    P.S. I will continue to blog at Healthline to educate patients about their eyes, and I also hope you’ll listen in to my Healthy Vision radio show. Or follow @drval on Twitter?

    The Year In Review: Social Media Medical Stories

    2011 was a very intense and exciting year regarding the developments and new insights of the relationship between medicine/healthcare and social media. Here are my favourite stories from 2011 selected and featured month by month.


    I had the honour to be included in the Advisory Board of the Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media; I wrote about how a Samsung Galaxy Tab changed totally my online activities, how Google Translate can be used in medicine and featured HealCam, a medical alternative of ChatRoulette.


    Facebook diagnosis by surgeon saved a friend; there was a lively discussion whether pharma companies can edit Wikipedia entries about their own products, it turned out Wikipedia can be a key tool for global public health promotion; and Scienceroll won the Best Medical Technology/Informatics Blog category for the third time in a row in the Medgadget’s Weblog Awards.

    March Read more »

    *This blog post was originally published at ScienceRoll*

    Latest Interviews

    IDEA Labs: Medical Students Take The Lead In Healthcare Innovation

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    How To Be A Successful Patient: Young Doctors Offer Some Advice

    I am proud to be a part of the American Resident Project an initiative that promotes the writing of medical students residents and new physicians as they explore ideas for transforming American health care delivery. I recently had the opportunity to interview three of the writing fellows about how to…

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    Latest Book Reviews

    Book Review: Is Empathy Learned By Faking It Till It’s Real?

    I m often asked to do book reviews on my blog and I rarely agree to them. This is because it takes me a long time to read a book and then if I don t enjoy it I figure the author would rather me remain silent than publish my…

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    The Spirit Of The Place: Samuel Shem’s New Book May Depress You

    When I was in medical school I read Samuel Shem s House Of God as a right of passage. At the time I found it to be a cynical yet eerily accurate portrayal of the underbelly of academic medicine. I gained comfort from its gallows humor and it made me…

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    Eat To Save Your Life: Another Half-True Diet Book

    I am hesitant to review diet books because they are so often a tangled mess of fact and fiction. Teasing out their truth from falsehood is about as exhausting as delousing a long-haired elementary school student. However after being approached by the authors’ PR agency with the promise of a…

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