Indian Health Service confronted by patient complaints on Facebook

IHS says it is aware of Facebook site describing patient experiences

The Indian Health Service (IHS) today acknowledged it is paying attention to patient feedback from an nontraditional source -- an informal, unaffiliated Facebook Web site.

The Facebook group site, titled “I just spent 6 hours at the IHS just for them to give me a Tylenol,” was established by a Facebook user in January. It has more than 1,900 members.

The Facebook group members have published hundreds of comments describing  long waits and other frustrations with IHS services, while some comments are neutral or positive. Although the group information page lists the site’s purpose as “Just for Fun,” many of the comments appear to be serious.

“Just because something is ‘government-run’ does not mean it has to be bad or incompetent,” was posted on March 16.

An agency spokeswoman today provided a comment to Federal Computer Week on the IHS’ response to the Facebook Web site: “The Indian Health Service is aware of this new site. Input and feedback from patients seen at IHS health care facilities has been a key aspect of each facility’s ongoing performance improvement process,” said Dianne Dawson, public affairs specialist for the IHS. “The IHS leadership takes patient comments and feedback very seriously.”

Dawson declined to comment further or to describe in detail whether, or how, the IHS will be reviewing and evaluating the Facebook comments.

For IHS and other government health agencies, the situation presents some challenges when complaints are presented in the form of social media commentary, according to Mark Trahant, a Kaiser media fellow who is examining the IHS.

Although the IHS and the Health and Human Services Department have several official conduits for tribal consultation and data collection, the informal nature of patient feedback presented in the format of social media presents new concerns, Trahant wrote in a March 9 column in Indian Country Today.

“Most complaints aren’t filed, they are spoken between family members or said in the waiting room. How does a modern health care agency learn from those?” Trahant asks. “This is where the new world of social media kicks in.”

Trahant encouraged the IHS to review and learn from the Facebook Web site.

“This may sound odd, but IHS is lucky to have such a page already created on Facebook,” Trahant wrote. “The agency ought to embrace it, monitor it, react when it can and learn.”

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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