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Social Networking Researcher Studies Physicians, Influence

Margaret Dick Tocknell, for HealthLeaders Media, June 21, 2011

Nicholas Christakis, M.D., is employing some of his popular social network research to map networks of physicians to analyze how they might work together in accountable care organizations.

Christakis, co-author of Connected: The Surprising power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, talked about his research into physician networks during a speech Friday at the at the annual conference for America's Health Insurance Plans.

With his team at Harvard University, Christakis is looking at how formal and informal physician networks take shape, how those networks might influence referral relationships, and how they might affect the delivery or quality of healthcare.

The research looks at what Christakis calls "the three degrees of influence" to identify influential physicians as well as the physicians they influence.  "It's not enough to know the doctors who influence to be effective. We also need to know who can be influenced."

The idea is to use the information gleaned from the formation of these social networks by physicians to enhance the creation of ACOs "that can function as a unit" and succeed in meeting the goals of the ACO.

Christakis says the study can be used to help identify physicians who can influence their colleagues in terms of prescribing drugs, coordinating care, and following evidence-based guidelines. He believes social network mapping could help identify practice patterns in terms of the utilization and cost of healthcare resources. Influencers may help reduce the use of healthcare resources as well as help cut costs.

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