Can tools and insights from the world of social media improve the experience of patients in a hospital or doctor's office?
That's the hope of the University of Pennsylvania Health System and Yorn, a Philadelphia start-up's plans for changing how companies relate to customers.
After a three-month pilot project, Penn was convinced. On Wednesday, it announced a multiyear contract to bring Yorn - which stands for "your opinion, right now" - to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and to its other hospitals and outpatient facilities.
Meera Gupta, the HUP surgeon who led the pilot, said the "right now" part of that formulation was a key to Yorn's value.
With Yorn, patients can send feedback or complaints directly to medical personnel, via a smartphone or a similar device provided by the hospital. Fixable problems can be addressed immediately. If not, just getting a message through can have a therapeutic effect.
"Once patients noticed that their voices were heard, their reported hospital experiences improved dramatically," said Gupta. She added that it was valuable to her as a doctor to learn "how my patients felt about their hospital experience."
The pilot showed that Yorn could also help address urgent issues at least as well as conventional means - such as calling for a nurse who is juggling several patients' needs.
For example, one patient used Yorn to report pain from a catheter the patient believed had been improperly inserted.
A urology-team member was watching Yorn's "dashboard" on a computer monitor, and dispatched a resident who determined that the patient was right and fixed the catheter.
"It could have been done the old-fashioned way as well, but this got it done quicker," said Michael Anderson, associate director of clinical effectiveness and quality improvement, who helped shepherd the project. "When you put a comment into the system, someone sees it right away."
To ensure that outcome takes resources, of course. Anderson said that throughout the pilot, Yorn dashboards were continually monitored by a unit clerk, charge nurse, or assistant unit manager.
But improved patient satisfaction can also bolster a hospital's resources, by helping it score well on patient surveys required by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services that can affect a hospital's reimbursements.
That was likely among the selling points for Yorn at Penn, said company CEO and founder Richard Rasansky. But he says Yorn also helps address a basic problem that affects any customer-focused enterprise and that predates social media - but a problem that the social-media revolution, ironically, has aggravated.
The basic problem, you might say, is that people and companies make mistakes, and mistakes make those who encounter them angry. But in the social-media era, angry people don't just send a letter to a CEO or newspaper. They vent publicly.
"Companies spend billions of dollars on tools for listening to how their customers communicate about products and services on social networks," Rasansky said. "The problem is, the cat's out of the bag at that point."
After studying social media's effects on business for a year, Rasansky decided he had a solution. Rather than encouraging a few disgruntled customers to vent to everyone they know and to the public, Yorn reverses the usual social-media flow.
"We collect data from a lot of people and narrow-cast it back to people who can make a difference," he said. "Yorn was designed to influence outcomes before they become outcomes."
For Penn Medicine, it's a prescription whose time seems to have come.