Medical Center Uses Web Questions to Connect Experts with Patients

Cynthia Johnson , January 27, 2010

When faced with the possibility of an upcoming medical procedure, you want to have all sources of information available to you. If you are like 61% of American adults, that means you'll look online for health information, according to a 2009 report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

Let's say you're searching for information on spinal taps. You'll likely find lots of content on the 'net—procedure risks, how it's performed, why it's performed, and how it might feel. (You'll also likely find many results for the fictional British rock group "Spinal Tap," which is hardly helpful.) Sifting through a plethora of search results isn't easy, especially if you're looking for something in particular.

For example, what if you don't have a typical spine? If you have scoliosis or another vertebral deformity, then you may be wondering how it might complicate the procedure. You might not find this information online and might not have access to someone who can answer your question and give you peace of mind.

Times like these call for an expert. The office of communications and public affairs at the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC) in Baltimore has taken an innovate approach to the familiar Ask the Expert tool that is considerably different from that of most hospitals. UMMC has a team of more than 80 experts on a wide range of topics ready to answer any health question that a site user or smartphone application user may have.

The experts don't answer questions monthly or stack the deck by answering their own questions to market their departments, physicians, or procedures. They actually answer any question that a user may have, and they've been doing so since October 2004. This past calendar year, UMMC received nearly 9,000 questions from site visitors world-wide.

While many Web sites have archives of frequently asked questions, the UMMC Ask the Expert feature allows patients to interact directly with an expert. According to UMMC, participants in their Web user survey consistently rank the tool as the most useful feature of their site.

"This is very interactive because the question is specific to the patient. If you go to a Web site like WebMD and enter 'colon cancer: treatment of,' you won't get an individual response tailored to your individual cancer situation," says William F. Regine, MD, a radiation oncologist with UMMC who participates in Ask the Expert.

In order to respond to such a large number of questions, you have to have a good process in place, which UMMC does. Their tool is unique in the way that they assign their experts, triage questions, monitor answers, and archive responses.

Getting experts on board
One of the project's surprises came in the number of physicians and healthcare professionals who agree to participate—and continue to do so year after year without any form of additional compensation. According to UMMC Web editor Chris Lindsley, only a handful of doctors have opted out of the project, typically due to time constraints.

"Doctors are very busy people," says Lindsley. "If they felt like this wasn't in their best interest, they would drop off very quickly. They see there's value in interacting with potential patients and getting their messages out there about their treatment, their approach, and how they deal with people."

UMMC selects experts in a wide range of specialties, procedures, and topics. This process allows them to maximize the time that they have to answer questions. For example, UMMC has individual experts who answer questions on kidney cancer, kidney cancer surgery, and kidney transplants, rather than having one expert who answers questions on all three topics.

"We try to be fairly specific," says Kathy Schuetz, who is the Web editor for the university's Greenebaum Cancer Center. "Often, we'll get somebody asking questions and it may be really off topic for that particular specialist, so we redirect the question to the appropriate expert."

While certain specialties get more questions than others, UMMC sees value in having a diverse group of experts available to respond to patients. It allows them to showcase the depth of expertise that they have at the hospital.

The university's marketing department sometimes makes recommendations to the communications group when a new physician joins the hospital. The Ask the Expert tool allows the hospital to introduce the physician and the knowledge that he or she has to offer patients. This increases the expert's credibility, which can also have a bearing on his or her initial patient volume.

Never a dumb question
Ask the Expert is intended for general health questions. Physicians do not diagnose or treat patients using the tool. In cases where they aren't able to answer a question, instead of turning the patient away, the UMMC communications group points the patient to additional resources on their site.

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