An Entrepreneur On The Inside: How A Seattle Doctor Is Redefining Patient-Clinician Communication


A sheet of paper reading “Digital Health” covers Suite 250‘s original office sign at the  Springbrook building of Seattle Children’s Hospital. Inside are two offices and a cubicle for three full-time staff comprising the Digital Health Department. Pediatrician Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, MBE, FAAP, and author of Seattle Children’s Hospital’s Seattle Mama Doc Blog, accepted the position as Executive Director three months ago, when the department opened.

Dr. Swanson holds within her a vibrancy more often felt at Health 2.0 conferences, where entrepreneurial pizazz and passion overwhelms even the most ardent naysayer. As an entrepreneur, she is questioning how things are done in the current medical ecosystem and is actively looking for better solutions. She focuses on bridging the great divide between patients and clinicians, and sees that bridge as efficient, meaningful communication.

“Everyone wants wisdom about the condition affecting either themselves or their loved ones,” says Dr. Swanson. Right now, roughly 80% of people search for health advice on Google or online patient communities to provide them with the information they feel they need. Doctors can and should be taking advantage of these burgeoning worlds by engaging in and providing their expertise to those conversations. There are huge opportunities for listening, learning, and sharing.

Dr. Swanson situates herself before significant audiences, speaking online to parents and colleagues about timely and relevant medical issues. She still practices pediatrics at the Everett Clinic one day a week, is on the Board of Advisors for Parents magazine, and is a member of the executive committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Communications and Media. She shares medical thoughts on the Huffington Post and King 5 News, and coordinates conveyance of all this and more with her active Twitter feed. Further hacking current medical protocol with presentations at leading medical and technology conferences, and recently, at TedxNijmegen. With all these efforts, she is helping to shift perspectives on the importance for more effective mechanisms of information sharing between patients and caregivers.

Dr. Swanson speaks primarily to what she calls the “sandwich generation,” or those of us who tend to be steeped in caring for our own bodies, our children’s developing bodies, and our elderly parents’s aging bodies. For this audience especially, the demand for information is vast, and critical.

There is a challenge, however, inherent in capturing information from already resource-tapped clinicians. Further, within hospitals, there are no incentives for doctors to enhance patient communication. Working with clinicians to listen to their needs, Dr. Swanson and her team plan to collaborate with tech innovators to see if there are ways to more effectively deliver meaningful information sharing between patients and their doctors.

“Communication is crucial to saving time and money and enhancing partnerships,” says Dr. Swanson. Recently a group of transplant physicians approached the Digital Health department in hopes to help facilitate digital tools for patient and family education. The app being used educates about medications needed to keep a patient with a transplant healthy. The hope is to evaluate whether interacting with the app on the iPad augments typical learning and education methods. This can potentially decrease confusion and questions about the transplant, reduce unnecessary days in the hospital, and lessen pharmacist’s time in conducting education sessions.

Also for the doctors, enhancing communication technology opens potential for more time. “There will be no need to repeat directives, and they can be better assured messages are conveyed more accurately and effectively.” For doctors, Dr. Swanson wants to help bring back a lost sense of purpose that can happen as they get directed to function in technology-laden care.

By forging partnerships with startups to pilot different technologies within Seattle Children’s Hospital, Dr. Swanson and her team will examine some of the difficulties in providing “unscripted’ dialogue between patients and clinicians. Acting as entrepreneurs within one of the leading pediatric hospitals in the nation, the Digital Health team has been tasked to be risky within a system that is typically risk adverse. “What we have in terms of health care is failing us at times,” says Dr. Swanson. “We are obligated to think about doing things differently.”




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Susan E. Williams (@estherswilliams) explores experiments at the intersection of health care and technology, particularly around how mobile apps, games and sensory apparatus change the way we pay attention, understand, and make decisions about our bodies, emotions, and behavior. Susan received her BA in cultural anthropology from Columbia University and her MA in East Asian Culture, with an emphasis on Japan, from New York University. She is on the board of Health 2.0 Seattle, and works (and believes) in social media communications for health care and science.


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