Social media starts the patient dialogue with doctors and nurses

A patient apologized to me for asking so many questions. There is no need to apologize, I said to the patient; it’s wonderful that you have so many questions concerning your health care. I mentioned to her that she is an “empowered and engaged patient,” and that is a good thing.

It’s no secret that health consumers are turning to the internet for health information.

In a recent article from MediaPost News, Gavin O’Malley writes that, according to new a study by Epsilon Strategic & Analytic Consulting Group, that, “40% of online consumers use social media for health information — reading or posting content — while the frequency of engagement varies widely. According to the study, individuals who use healthcare social media fall into two broad groups: the 80% who are highly engaged patients, and take active roles in health management; and the 20% who lack confidence to play an active role in their own health.”

Highly engaged patients are proactive in their health care

The reasons health consumers engage in health care social media are simple.

They are looking for emotional and informational support. By engaging in online health communities many people find that emotional support they are looking for. They find reassurance from other people going through the same experience. They can collaborate and share information. They gather health information from various sites to help them gain knowledge.

There’s no question that today’s patients are savvy health care consumers

Today’s patients are e-patients. Surrounded by technology, researching health information on the Internet has never been easier. Patients are engaging in communities and social networking sites and the exchange of information between patients has proven invaluable to some, thanks to the e-patient and Health 2.0 movement.

Dave deBronkart, diagnosed with advanced kidney cancer quickly became engaged in the internet searching desperately for health information and support. He became an empowered and engaged patient surrounding himself with invaluable information and support.

I asked Dave about his experience as an e-patient. “I joined the online health communities and found affirmation that I was indeed at the right hospital, and I obtained firsthand experiences from other patients learning what they went through.” Enthusiastically and adamantly he said, “People search for information about everything else, why wouldn’t they search for health information to try to help themselves in a crisis.”

He added, “The internet doesn’t replace doctors. It’s an additional valuable resource.”

Still, doctors, nurses and other health providers question the social media value

So while many health consumers are searching the web for support, reassurance and specific health information and health news, doctors and even nurses continue to question the value of the internet for patients.

There’s a plethora of health information on circulating the web and some health care providers feel that patients may be obtaining inaccurate information.

Will health information online make doctors obsolete?

In’s recent post, “Health information online won’t make doctors obsolete,” he asks the following:

But are doctors in danger of being “phased out” by Google and other search engines? … In an interesting perspective piece by Pamela Hartzband and Jerome Groopman in the New England Journal of Medicine, the answer appears to be no … Doctors have to get used to the fact they are no longer the sole source of a patient’s health information. Instead, they need to serve more as interpreters of data, and be willing to separate the tangible information from the increasing amount of noise patients find online.

In that NEJM perspective piece, Hartzband and Groopman provide spot on information when they write about the relationship between doctors and patients:

… sending e-mail is quite different from speaking with a patient face to face, and doctors must consider carefully what they say and how they say it. It’s impossible to judge the effect on patients of information transmitted through cyberspace: we can’t observe grimaces, tears, or looks of uncertainty. And written dialogue is quite different from spoken conversation: replies may be delayed, phrases may be more stilted, tone of voice is absent. We should pay close attention to any unintentional fraying of the physician–patient bond.

Face to face communication remains critical for the doctor/patient relationship.

Bottom line

It’s important for doctors, nurses and other health professionals to understand that Google, social media sites, health news and information sites and online patient community sites will not replace them. It’s simply a tool that offers additional information, and it allows the conversation to get started between health provider and patient. Doctors, nurses and other health providers need to engage in the internet and social media platforms to help educate the health consumer. They have the power to provide accurate, reliable and truthful information. They should not shun away from the internet but embrace it and join forces with the health consumer. Partnering together is a very useful and empowering.

Additionally, the internet will not change the underlying need for face to face interaction and engagement between doctor and patient. That personal interaction will always be paramount.

Barbara Ficarra is creator, executive producer and host of the Health in 30® radio show, and founder and editor-in-chief of

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  • pacificpsych

    The big question is: who writes the material on the internet? In the case of psychiatry it’s Big Pharma, one way or another, directly or indirectly. It’s all advertising. Psychotherapy, if mentioned at all, is given short shrift. The dubious nature of psychiatric diagnoses is overlooked – most “information” sites simply regurgitate the DSM. The efficacy of medications, or lack thereof, is not exactly an easy tidbit to find on the Net. It’s commendable that patients want to be educated, but the sad truth is what they’re getting is advertising by the very reductionistic, biological, pharma funded system.

  • Freda

    The net would never replace my doctor, though it sometimes helps me out of hours when I need some more information. The main thing is to write down concerns and take them to the doctor – helps speed the process up, and there is nothing like personal support as well as a sense of sharing in one’s own healthcare.

  • Penelope

    Yeah so true that face to face interaction and engagement between doctor and patient will always be paramount. I still believe that this thing is the most important than any social media and health forums though these two really help a lot. I definitely agree with Freda also that the doctors are better than the web when it comes to healing patients.

  • Carl

    The Epsilon study — which was sponsored by Big Pharma, by the way — shows that people turn to Doctors, Nurses, and Physicians for health information first. Product and Health websites are fourth in line.

    I would hope that more psychiatrists and psychologists go online, like PacificPsych has, in order to provide a counterbalance to the online marketing of Big Pharma… and I would hope that they would use great communication skills too (otherwise the highly polished marketing writing will win out; I know, I’m a copywriter). Reading Made to Stick should be required of all healthcare professionals.

  • Steven

    Face to face is the greatest…too bad it takes four to six weeks before that can happen. And after a few weeks of waiting, it would be okay to use email as a substitute but the majority of doctors won’t use it. From my viewpoint, the medical profession is stuck in the twentieth century and appears to be quite happy that way. I see no movement…

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