Dr. Farris Timimi – The MDigitalLife Interview

Posted by: in Global Healthcare, Healthcare Insights, MDigitalLife, Medical Communications, Social Media Insights & Trends on April 25, 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.

“Physicians have a moral obligation to create and disseminate accurate health information, using the language of their patients, in the places their patients go to look for it.”

Dr. Farris Timimi, MD – The Mayo Clinic

When Farris Timimi began his first cardiology practice nearly 15 years ago, he started with a recognition that looks prescient. He established a Cardiology clinic for underinsured and uninsured patients.  As a requirement for funding, half the board was made up of patients and family members.  During those critical conversations, he learned rapidly that health care literacy reflected more than language barriers; indeed, it reflected cultural perspectives that had an enormous impact on their ability to understand their condition and treatment options and impacted their ability to partner with their providers in achieving good health outcomes.  So in order to ensure that he communicated to them in a way that they’d respond to, he used a Patient-Family Advisory Council (PFAC) to help him relate to his patients most effectively.

Before you start wondering why more doctors don’t think this way, it’s important to understand some of the challenges that those doctors are up against.  Doctors are obligated to treat their patients according to continually-updated best-practice guidance.  For heart failure alone (Dr. Timimi’s area of deepest expertise), there are over 400 such guidelines to be aware of.  But the other key obligation is for physicians to treat the patient, not the condition.  And that means that those 400 guidelines also need to take into consideration who that patient is: her race, language skills, educational level, home environment, financial stability, and her psychological readiness for change.

To the layperson (like me), that sounds overwhelming.  But Dr. Timimi, rather than throwing in the towel, actually feels optimistic about the future of medicine.  One of the sources of that optimism is that 15 years later, Dr. Timimi still believes deeply in the concept of the PFAC.  But now, he’s begun to think of new applications for the concept, and now sees social media as a channel for allowing a PFAC to scale in ways that have never before been possible.

To me, that’s a fascinating enough concept … but it actually doesn’t end there.

“The benefit to social media engagement isn’t just about the doctor gaining a better understanding of the patient’s needs.  It’s also about enabling an emotionally engaged patient to become truly invested in his care … a factor that has proven to be important in getting the most out of his treatment.”

– Dr. Farris Timimi

Framed in that way, it’s not hard to understand why Dr. Timimi feels so strongly that doctors need to be ready to engage in social media.  “When we leave our patients to their own devices in terms of researching health issues, he says, “we cede the moral high ground to anybody out there who has a point of view – valid or not.”  He cited an example from his own life as the caregiver for a pediatric patient – in other words, a parent.  As the father of young children, Dr. Timimi found that he was spending a huge chunk of his kids’ vaccination appointment talking to the pediatrician about vaccine hesitancy.  That kind of conversation might not have been necessary had doctors fought fire with fire – and shared accurate content about vaccinations to contradict all the noise surrounding the inaccurate content created by those with a large social media presence.

The way forward is clear to Dr. Timimi.  Practitioners – all of them – have to put good content in the hands of a willing consumer who’s looking for that content.  Celebrities are now viewed as proprietary holders of credibility as health care providers have not strategically populated digital footprints.  Dr. Timimi has found that he’s getting an increasing number of queries from his patients about online resources: Q&As, videos, blogs – and often communities – that they can use to augment and own their treatment regimen.  For that reason, Dr. Timimi keeps a mental library of online resources to which he can refer all of his patients.

And while creating any good content is better than creating none, he doesn’t believe that doctors or other HCPs need to shoot blindly.  “It’s possible to generate insights about what kind of media is most likely to resonate with each patient.”  For example, he notes that mobile resources can be really effective for socioeconomically challenged patients – and that ensuring content is mobile-optimized is critically important.  And that makes sense; recent data tells us that poorer demographic groups actually index higher for the use of smartphones and mobile web sites – and even for social media tools like Twitter.

Dr. Timimi also underscored the importance of ensuring that we make good health information available to those who are truly at the greatest risk, including the disabled and those who don’t have access to a smartphone or broadband internet.  For that reason, it’s critical to ensure that we support local community access advocates, such as community centers, churches and public libraries are able to provide access to good content for those who have never been online, who may not have access at home, or have limited access available only at work.

The Mayo Clinic has taken advanced approach to using social media, and have started to survey their PFACs across 25 different departments to ascertain patients’ preferred online media and content consumption.  Mayo also provides Dr. Timimi a great platform for his own communications; he blogs regularly on the Clinic’s blog – but he’s also developed a robust twitter presence, Mayo’s facebook page, and has even begun to use Pinterest (the first MD I’ve spoken to who’s doing so professionally).

When I asked about why he felt that Pinterest was of interest as a communication channel, he noted that the site skews pretty heavily towards women (the primary consumers of healthcare for their families) and that the average time-on-site is 90 minutes per month.  He also feels that the visual-heavy medium is really effective for building deeper understanding around health issues ranging from healthy cooking to how to install your infant car seat properly.

Doctor Timimi is on the vanguard of a new breed of “digital doctor” – and wants to be able to encourage his colleagues who are just getting started.  He recently filmed a video about using social media that’s generated a lot of interest – he says that it’s encouraged a lot of doctors to approach him with advice … advice that he’s more than willing to dispense.  To keep abreast of Dr. Timimi’s online activities, you can find him online here:

The Mayo Clinic Blog


The Mayo Clinic’s Facebook Page



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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