While social media has made a mark in every realm of our lives, the realm of healthcare is not far behind, and is in fact catching up pretty quickly. The presence of the healthcare industry in different types of social media has created quite a stir regarding its impact on society at large. With the growing number of e-patients, the authenticity of information shared on these media is being questioned. However, the fact that the e-patient is becoming more responsible for his own health and well-being cannot be overlooked.
Be it interaction on online communities such as PatientsLikeMe or Inspire, mere information dissemination via networks like Facebook and Twitter, or videos on YouTube explaining medical procedures, discoveries, or patient experiences, the presence of social media is strongly rooted in the world of healthcare and will remain so in the future. As we can see, there are two sides to this coin too, and here we discuss the positive and the negative impact of social media on healthcare and on the e-patient.
Social Media and Its Impact on the Healthcare Industry
In the year 2009, live updates were sent on Twitter while a surgery was performed on a patient to get rid of a cancerous tumor in his kidney, by the Henry Ford Hospital. Real-time updates about such a sensitive procedure created a huge buzz in the online community. The purpose, the hospital said, was to educate future patients with a similar condition about such procedures, so that they were more informed and would be able to understand the process without being intimidated by it. Of course, a lot of students benefited from the procedure, as live updates and videos of this surgery helped them in the course of study. As such, this social medium let out to the world, information that was otherwise considered restricted within a hospital/medical center.
This instance tells us a lot about perhaps the growing necessity of social media in the field of healthcare. While a lot of people would still refute the necessity of tweeting a live operation, there are others who claimed to have been better informed by it. This procedure was also termed as a marketing strategy to attract new patients to the hospital, which is believed to have worked in their favor. And this is just one way in which social media has entered this industry.
A recent survey reports that 61% of Internet users resort to the Internet for health information. One fact that has been revealed from this survey is that the e-patient is slowly becoming more responsible for his own health, and is taking steps to become more self-reliant. This is a broad advantage of the entry of social media in this industry.
The Rise of the E-Patient
Online health communities, forums and support groups have allowed patients from all over the world to connect with each other, and this is particularly beneficial for those suffering from rare health conditions. While you may be the only one in your town to have a disease, you definitely are not the only one in the world. These interactive communities are allowing patients themselves to suggest the right person to consult for a particular health condition, and the kind of questions that should be posed to the healthcare practitioner regarding the condition. In fact, these communities respect patient privacy by allowing patients to participate anonymously.
Direct Communication with the Healthcare Practitioner
It is not unknown that accessing doctors has become more difficult nowadays. However, by connecting with doctors via various social media, patients are now able to get their medical advice sooner. Doctors are not only imparting direct information to their own patients, but also put up blog posts, or tweet information continuously to inform patients about various conditions without specific diagnoses. These are time-saving and cost-effective methods that help both, the doctor and the patient. Doctors also use these platforms to educate the public about life-saving measures in case of emergencies.
Marketing Tool for Hospitals/Pharmaceutical Companies
Social media is also used as a great marketing tool to launch a variety of healthcare products. The informed consumer even has the ability to rate and review these products, thereby providing first-hand information to those who would like to try these products themselves. With regard to using social media marketing by hospitals, the aforementioned example of the live tweets of a surgery was a good marketing strategy to attract more patients as well as personnel to the hospital.
Raising General Awareness
Both e-patients and doctors are using social media platforms to raise awareness about different health conditions and healthcare products that may prove beneficial to others. Rapid information dissemination via Facebook and Twitter allows the consumer/potential patient to educate himself much sooner. Also, such platforms are being used to address cases of suicides, where immediate help may be provided to prevent such an action.
Rising Popularity of Non-Profit Health Organizations
Non-profit organizations are utilizing the power of social media to garner attention to their causes, and get people to participate more in enabling eradication of health issues that plague society in general. This is one of the biggest influences of social media on healthcare.
With every positive side there comes a negative side too, and this is true even in the case of the utilization of social media in this industry. However, it is believed that increased regulation may reduce the intensity of some of these negative effects.
Abuse of Social Media by Hospital Employees
William Wells arrived at the emergency room at St. Mary Medical Center in Long Beach on April 9, mortally wounded. The 60-year-old had been stabbed more than a dozen times by a fellow nursing home resident, his throat slashed so savagely he was almost decapitated.
Instead of focusing on treating him, an employee said, the nurses and other hospital staff did the unthinkable: they snapped photos of the dying man and posted them on Facebook.
This is a clear case of how social media is abused by the healthcare industry. The concerned staff were fired immediately, but that does not guarantee that such instances will not recur. Moreover, violating the privacy of patients by sharing their personal or health-related information via various social media is an occurrence that is likely to continue unless regulated strictly by the parent organization. It has also been found that hospital employees spend more time online than they do working, thereby resulting in several cases of negligence.
Supposed Lack of Authentic Information
No matter how far social media goes, nothing can replace the personal diagnosis of a doctor. Yes, in less serious situations, one may rely on the information available online. However, when a patient does enter an online support group, how much can he rely on the information available there? YouTube videos and Facebook and Twitter posts can be relied upon to a certain extent. But before doing so, the e-patient must thoroughly examine the authenticity of the person providing the information by checking the profile of the person and viewing the source (website on which it is presented) of the information. If it is a website or a forum dedicated to health and medicine, it is likely to be more reliable than an anonymous Twitter post.
Increasing Demands on a Doctor’s Time
A question of concern that has been often raised in this area is the amount of time that doctors always seem to have a dearth of. Will they be able to tend to patients personally as well as online? Again, the same amount of responsibility is essential when talking to a patient via social media, and whether or not they can give this kind of time and responsibility, is a major concern.
Blurring Line Between Personal and Professional Lives of Doctors
Befriend your doctor on Facebook and you may be privy to more information than you thought was necessary. Doctors have personal lives too, and seeing a photo of your doctor enjoying a drink at a party may affect your perception of him, as well as how reliable you now consider him to be. It is important then, that doctors create separate accounts specifically for their patients in order to keep the relationship strictly professional, and provide necessary information that can be used to authenticate their credibility.
All in all, it can be said that social media cannot be used as a replacement for the traditional mode of treatment or health care; instead, it can be used to enhance awareness and create a well-informed global community that can personally benefit from the plethora of information that is being put out there by the minute. Increased knowledge and responsibility on part of the e-patient as well as the healthcare provider, and the ability of the doctor to spread awareness with cost-effective methods is sure to have a deep and positive impact in the long run, particularly if the methods of online communication in the healthcare sector are thoroughly regulated.