Raina M. Merchant, MD, MS

Raina M. Merchant, MD, MS


Associate Professor, Emergency Medicine, Perelman School of Medicine
Director, Center for Digital Health, Perelman School of Medicine

Raina Merchant, MD, MSHP, learns by listening--not only to the patients in her care, but to social media conversations and crowdsourced health information that provide new perspectives on how people think. “Our world is changing and we have an opportunity to engage people where they are,” she said.

As the director of the Center for Digital Health, Merchant leads an interdisciplinary team exploring how to mine health data from social media platforms to help clinicians better understand the public’s health-related knowledge and needs. “You can really learn by listening to what patients have to say online,” says Merchant.

For example, in a recent study, Merchant and her team compared Yelp patient hospital reviews to federal hospital patient satisfaction reports. They discovered that the federal government’s reports lacked 12 categories of common patient concerns found on Yelp. The missing categories, including “compassion of staff,” “quality of nursing” and “billing department interactions,” could provide a more nuanced view of overall hospital quality. In another study, her team searched through 10 billion tweets and analyzed more than 550,000 of them to demonstrate the potential utility of Twitter for studying communication about cardiovascular health.

Merchant joined Penn as a Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholar and has been an LDI Senior Fellow since 2007. Much of her work focuses on using social media and crowdsourcing to understand patients’ needs and perceptions, and translating research findings into more effective care.

As the child of a teacher and a doctor, Merchant had a service-oriented upbringing in South Texas and Chicago. “I became really interested, in a very generic sense, in helping people and doing something where I felt I could make a difference in my community and my work,” she notes. In medical school, a rotation in the emergency room brought her ambitions into focus as Merchant found herself excited by the opportunity to be the first person to help patients, especially cardiac arrest patients who have extremely immediate needs.

But the challenges were obvious. “We couldn’t predict which person would have their heart restarted and which person wouldn’t. I was really struck by the challenge of not knowing who would live and who would die, and I started doing research in this area,” she explains.

Merchant realized life-saving assistance was available even before a patient reached the emergency department in the form of automated external defibrillators (AEDs). Although AEDs are placed in accessible, public locations, non-medical people often didn’t know where to find them or how to use them. Merchant created the MyHeartMap Challenge, an ongoing social media and crowdsourcing project to improve public awareness about AEDs by collecting submissions of photographs of the devices and information about their locations across Pennsylvania. The project creates citizen-scientists as it educates the public about AEDs.

Merchant is an Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine and has a secondary appointment in the Division of General Internal Medicine and Department of Anesthesia and Critical Care. She serves on several leadership committees within the American Heart Association, and is a program director of the National Clinician Scholars Program at the University of Pennsylvania.

Merchant has received the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Young Leader Award, the American Heart Association Young Investigator Award for the Best of the Best Original Abstracts, Resuscitation Science National Meeting: “Where are lifesaving automated external defibrillators located and how hard is it to find them?” and the Society for Academic Emergency Medicine Excellence Award. Merchant completed a BA in Psychobiology at Yale University, a medical degree and residency in Emergency Medicine at the University of Chicago, and a Masters of Science in Health Policy Research at Penn.