Three Positive Trends on Social Media in Healthcare

September 6, 2016

In doing research for an upcoming conference, this doctor discovered three interesting trends on the use of social media by patients and providers alike.

I am preparing a talk for a conference happening at the end of the month on the use of social media (aka Dr. Google) in patient decision making. My experience prior to doing the research was on vaccine-refusal memes on Facebook (which alternate between alarming and downright silly). However, the topic is more complex and nuanced than just the memes.

It turns out that most of our patients use the internet to research health information. No surprise there - patients often come into my office letting me know what they think they have. It also turns out that they do not usually go to "quack" sites but have some savviness about reputable sites. No surprise there either - most of us know that there is bogus information out there on everything from measles to political candidates. However, there are three things I found most interesting in my review of this topic.

#1: Doctors are getting with the program and starting to use social media for professional purposes. This goes beyond making sure your rating on www.ratemydoctor.com is reasonable. I belong to a closed Facebook group whose members are all physicians and moms. We share a lot of non-professional information, but also do take advantage of thousands of consultants to ask HIPAA-compliant clinical questions. There is an app called Figure 1 (https://figure1.com/), which allows for medical professionals to share cases and solicit opinions in a HIPAA-compliant manner from colleagues around the world. It's kind of like a virtual doctor's lounge…

#2: Patients may be a better source of information than a doctor. I may know all about the pharmacology and pharmacokinetics of a specific medication, but I haven't taken it, so I may not know that it takes like metal or often makes your fingernails turn green. I also don't know exactly what it feels like to have Crohn's disease, fibromyalgia, or bipolar disorder. While there is a lot of biased and misleading information out there, some sites like Patients Like Me (https://www.patientslikeme.com/) create a forum for patients to share information and experiences. While these sites need to be used with a heavy dose of caution, it is a great space for our patients to link with those going through similar experiences.

#3: Health organizations are becoming increasingly facile in using social media to educate and influence patients. Recognizing that statistics and science only go so far in convincing people, organizations and healthcare professionals are leveraging sites like Youtube and Facebook to provide accurate information in a format that captures patients' attention. One of my favorite is an awesome description of chronic pain (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C_3phB93rvI).

I am more optimistic about social media and its influence on my patients and their healthcare decisions. We have the ability to leverage social media to interact with our patients in new and exciting ways - ways that have the potential to improve shared decision making and patients' health and wellbeing.