Giving health care heroes a voice on social media

Marc Zarefsky , Contributing News Writer

The light blue mask covers Theresa Weiler’s face, but it cannot hide her emotion.

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Weiler, a nurse and COVID-19-unit supervisor at Marshfield Medical Center in Wisconsin, fought back tears as she addressed her health system’s leaders about life on the front lines battling SARS-CoV-2. Her voice trembled as she described the horror of watching colleagues with pools of sweat in their masks perform CPR for 40 minutes and not be able to resuscitate a patient, and the agony of having to tell families they cannot see their loved ones with COVID-19 a final time before they die.

For five minutes, Weiler describes being exhausted and overwhelmed by the realities of the ongoing pandemic. Video of the speech is gut-wrenching, but it is an address that everyone should watch to get a better understanding of the hardships and pressure being placed on the medical community. That is what leaders at Marshfield Clinic Health System thought when they posted the video to its social media channels as a way to educate the public.

On Facebook, the caption to the video reads, “COVID-19 is very real and it is very serious. We see it every day in our hospitals. Please take this seriously and take necessary precautions to help slow the spread of COVID-19.” Marshfield is an AMA Health System Partner.

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The video is the most popular on the system’s Facebook page, and that speaks to the importance of letting health care workers speak out about the realities they are experiencing, said Bill Melms, MD, chief medical officer at Marshfield Clinic. Dr. Melms discussed his health system’s approach to helping physicians amplify their voices during COVID-19 in order to engage with their patients, combat misinformation and share their experiences during a recent episode of the “AMA COVID-19 Update.”

That video of Weiler “worked very well,” Dr. Melms said, because “it did exactly what we needed it to do in terms of raising awareness for the public as to the importance of this and the seriousness of all of this.”

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New challenge, new media strategy

Marshfield’s approach to social media shifted as a result of the pandemic. Previously, the system’s leaders viewed social channels primarily as an advertising mechanism to get information out about the Marshfield itself, including new services offered at its respective health centers. With the arrival of COVID-19, Dr. Melms said the health system viewed social media as a place to be “a voice of public health.”

He explained that getting physicians and other health professionals in front of cameras and on social media was a way to dispel myths and inaccuracies about COVID-19 and help them build and maintain trust with patients. This public engagement, particularly as it relates to social media, is not something physicians typically learn in medical school. While future physicians will likely be more adept at social media than their predecessors, there still are components they need be taught, Dr. Melms said.

“They certainly have an advantage in the tech over me,” he said, “but some of the younger physicians don't necessarily have a good grasp on the gravity of what they say and the impacts of what they say. That's probably where the learning needs to take place.”

Marshfield Clinic will continue to offer that type of education to its doctors.

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“This has underscored the absolute importance of the physician voice,” Dr. Melms said. “I'm not looking for a paradigm shift, but we have learned a lot during the pandemic. We'll continue to develop the physicians’ voice, we'll continue to provide support and offer opportunities for coaching.”

Laura Fegraus, vice president of external affairs, communications and brand at The Permanente Federation—another AMA Health System Partner—also detailed how their organization has adjusted their strategy amid the challenges of the pandemic.

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