Ted Eytan, MD – The MDigitalLife Interview

Posted by: in Global Healthcare, Healthcare Insights, MDigitalLife, Medical Communications on February 15, 2012

#MDigitalLife is a WCG program designed to learn from and to showcase physicians who are blazing new trails in the digital world – changing the way that medicine is practiced and better health is realized.  You can find previous posts here.

“As a physician, you can give back by simply sharing what you’re doing, what you’re thinking, what you’re worried about and what you’re excited about.  And if more physicians do that, we will learn about things that we should be doing less, things that we should be doing more … we can all learn from each other.  The more we’re ‘out there’ in that way, healthcare as a whole will be better served.”

Ted Eytan, MD – Director, The Permanente Federation (Kaiser Permanente)

When we started using social media at Humana back in 2008, we were pretty unique for a health insurance company.  In fact, the only other folks in the business that we’d run into on the social web were the ever-innovative folks at Kaiser Permanente.  I first connected with their VP of Public Relations, Holly Potter (still one of my most trusted colleagues in the health communications business), but she immediately turned me on to Ted Eytan almost immediately.

Ted is one of those rare birds who went into medical school knowing that he wanted to work in family practice – and came out still thinking so.  “Family practitioners don’t just look at a diagnosis and move on.  We’re trained to look at ourselves and our interactions with patients to learn how we can be better doctors.” This mindset was compounded by the time in which Ted came of age as a doctor.  It was the time when both HIV and and personal computing were irrevocably changing our culture and the ways we interact; with each other, with our health, and with data.  For the first time, patients were consistently coming to appointments knowing more than their doctors did about their condition.

It caused Ted to embrace a different mindset – that every individual patient needs a different kind of care – and potentially a different kind of doctor.  Some want a traditional, no-nonsense, paternalistic doc who’ll just tell them what to do.  Others want a doc who’ll help them consider multiple alternatives, and as a partner, help them decide what to do.  Others are really focused on finding a doctor who shares their interests and their lifestyle.  The key is that there wasn’t just one way to be a doctor anymore.  “Patients have amazing stories if you can take the time to listen – and they’re so important.  The most important thing that we as physicians want to know, is ‘how can I connect with this patient?'”

Kaiser Permanente physicians learned early-on that patients respond better when they can engage with their doctor – in one form or another – between appointments.  Kaiser Permanente’s EMR (Electronic Medical Record) system helps to enable doctor-patient electronic communication.  For example, in some Permanente medical group practices they’re actually seeing fewer patients (and spending more time with each one) because there’s so much time occupied in the face-to-face that doesn’t really need to happen then (e.g., prescription follow-up; daily “journaling” activities in managing depression).  But Ted is quick to point out one really important point.  Technology is an enabler; not an end in and of itself.


“You know institutions tend to become static; they build walls around themselves to protect themselves from change, and eventually die.  You should fight that by opening up your thinking and your ideas, and work for a change.”

– Sidney Garfield, MD –  Co-founder of Kaiser Permanente, in 1960

That’s the quote that begins Ted’s paper, “Social Media and the Health System” (co-written with Dr. Jeffrey Benabio, Vince Golla, Dr. Rahul Parikh and Dr. Sarah Stein).  And it, in Ted’s view, is THE difference-maker.  Kaiser Permanente trains its physicians to lead.  That’s not normal in today’s healthcare system.  The organization beleives that our society wants and needs doctors to lead in the healthcare space – but also to lead well.  Not with hubris, entitlement or paternalism – but as servant-leaders who are devoted to doing whatever it takes to promote health at both an individual and a population level.

There are over four million patients on Kaiser Permanente’s EMR system (MyHealthManager).  But they repeatedly train their their physicians (and, indirectly, their patients) that “It’s not about the tools – its about the attitude.  Social and digital channels enable – and are really all about – listening and a two-way dialog.  They enable physicians to be there with their patients all the time – not just in the exam room.”  And that’s a pretty powerful feeling for a patient.


Another manifestation of Kaiser Permanente’s physician/staff leadership mandate is the success of the IdeaBook – a platform for collaborating on issues of patient care from around the business.  The reasoning is that nobody – no doctor, no nurse, no IT person or communicator – knows the right way to do everything.  But they all can bring their expertise to the table to create better patient care.  The aforementioned paper is a great example of that kind of collaboration – between a loose group of physicians and one very clever digital marketer.  By working together, they were able to come up with a solution – in this case perhaps more of an organizational philosophy – that has the potential to improve patient care.

“People tend to feel really unsure about whether they can really add value to anyone by using social media.  But the thing is, you’re still an expert in your field. The tools don’t change what you do or what you know – they just give you a different mechanism for sharing those things.”

Ted Eytan, MD

Ted is now living in Washington, DC – and enjoying the “exuberant extroversion” that’s so rampant there.  Like all of the physicians we’ve featured in the #MDigitalLife series, Ted isn’t just talking about change, he’s living it out as an example – in the true Kaiser Permanente fashion.  That kind of open leadership looks to me like the best hope for a healthcare system in trouble.

Keep in touch with Ted in the following places:

His Blog: http://www.tedeytan.com/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/#!/tedeytan

LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/in/tedeytan

YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/user/tedeytan

It’s common for me to close these interviews by asking for a “reading list” – or a “following list” – of MDs.  Instead, Ted shared with me a list that he calls The Brave:


“This is actually a list I have had for about 2 years. The name comes from Alexandra Drane , President of Eliza Corp, who told me, ‘Don’t call me an innovator, call me a member of the Council of the Brave, because that’s what you have to be to do what we do.'” -T.E.

By: Greg Matthews

Greg Matthews is the the creator and Managing Director of the W2O Group's MDigitalLife - Understanding, Engaging and Activating Physicians in the Digital Age

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One Response

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  1. “Technology is an enabler; not an end in and of itself” Amen!!! I can’t emphasize enough how true this is!

    “It’s not about the tools – its about the attitude. Social and digital channels enable – and are really all about – listening and a two-way dialog. They enable physicians to be there with their patients all the time – not just in the exam room.” Yes again!

    Thanks for sharing what you learned about Ted. It’s really excited to see people in the medical field starting to “get it”.

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