In this day and age of social networks and high speed internet, it’s hard to believe there was an era when this didn’t exist. Popular sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn etc. have been embraced by businesses worldwide to connect with their employees, potential customers as well as partners. Similarly, the Healthcare industry has also been impacted by the power of social media and the internet as a whole. In 2014, the Journal of Medical Internet Research revealed that approximately 95 percent of hospitals had an official Facebook page and 50 percent were active on Twitter.
A tweet regarding the Zika virus, from a credible source like Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, spreads more rapidly than the virus itself. People now seek information regarding an existing or potential health condition, through blogs, forums, personal experiences of others and reviews of physicians. Even when facing some initial troubling symptoms, the first reaction generally is to Google symptoms and find out the intensity of the illness, its kind, and remedy even before contacting a local physician. These sources of information are used actively by patients for psychological comfort, education on the disease and care advice. For instance, patients suffering from chronic diseases such as cancer may use the social network for advice on self-care, expectations when undergoing treatment, comparing experiences with others, precautions, psychological support, exercise and diet. This helps them mentally prepare to deal with the ailment, as well as evaluate and analyze the care received from their doctor.
The rising trend of a more patient-centered and value-based care has also increased the importance of patient reviews and personal stories, to providers themselves, primarily because of the insight it gives into the experience of the patients. Taking these reviews into account, practices can improve their service provision and attract more patients. This data is also being used for research to analyze patient thinking patterns. California based researchers studied the Afghanistan and Iraq veterans through their activities on social media and text messages communication. This helped customize care provision according to the patient’s mental state in order to make it more successful and derive better results. In fact platforms such as ‘PatientsLikeMe’ monetize by selling information to clinicians and researches that patients share online. This aids in developing new medicines, equipment, services, understanding the illness in more depth as well as approaching treatments from a new perspective. Boston Children’s Hospital believes Twitter is a potential source of quality measurement and is currently researching the extent to which patient data could be used in real time.
There are also a few challenges the healthcare industry faces due to social media. The most critical one being quality control. The information that is being shared may be inaccurate and potentially misleading, which can have dire consequences if spread amongst the masses. A disease affects individuals differently; diagnosis and prescriptions differ from patient to patient. Even though some forums and communities now site references of the shared content, lack of factual data that doesn’t come from medical professionals can have adverse effects if misinterpreted.
Moreover, discrimination in terms of potential employment and insurance coverage may also occur. The same social media networks, e.g. Facebook and Twitter are also used for entertainment, posting pictures and daily interactions with friends and family. Updates by patients, doctors and clinics that can potentially reveal a patient’s identity along with their medical condition, will have an impact on the decisions made by the patient’s current or potential employer. Irrespective of these challenges, one cannot deny the positive effect social media has had on communication between patients, support groups, care providers and researchers.