3 reasons why patients should use social media

There’s been a lot of talk over the last year or so about the benefits (and some drawbacks) of physicians using social media. Social media use by physicians has become so widespread here in Canada that the Canadian Medical Association has actually developed guidelines to help physicians understand the rules of engagement on the web. But while there has been a lot of attention paid to physicians and social media, we’ve seen a lot less about the benefits for patients.  The following are 3 reasons why we think more physicians should encourage their patients to use social media:

1. Their healthcare providers, clinics and hospitals are online and ready to interact with them. Whether via Twitter or Facebook, more healthcare providers and health organizations are embracing social media. Patients can now follow their physicians to learn more about their clinical work and research interests. For example, Dr. Ryan Madanick is a Gastroenterologist and Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, interested in refractory gastrointestinal diseases and medical education. The content posted by Dr. Madanick on his Twitter account is highly relevant to patients and a great source of information. Many health clinics (e.g. the Toronto Malvern Community Health Center, TAIBU) can also be found online, micro-blogging useful patient information like wait times, specialty clinics (e.g. flu shots) and announcements regarding services. Several hospitals, like the Massachusetts General Hospital, use social media for similar purposes. Finally, various allied health professionals, like Harrison Reed, an Ohio-based Physician Assistant, are readily present in the blogosphere as well.

2. Equip patients with knowledge: the latest studies, news and developments in health. Patients who customize their social media experience with the right mix of ‘channels’ of information can reap the rewards of news and perspectives on the latest studies, developments and controversies in health. Patient-friendly health information sites (e.g. Kids Health), health advocacy organizations (e.g. the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation), and health journalists (e.g. CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta), are just a few of the groups who effectively use social media to spread their message. Social media has given patients the most power they have ever had, to better understand how to optimize their health.

3. Patients sharing their stories in virtual support groups.  Social media has provided an online environment for patients to discuss their health. Possibly the area of greatest potential, more patients are using it to share their stories including their rises and pitfalls, side-effects of therapies and the social and psychological aspects of their illnesses, to name a few. Online chat streams for patients with breast cancer and rheumatoid arthritis are examples of a growing list that are becoming more popular.

With patients becoming increasingly social media-savvy, it is safe to say that this phenomenon is here to stay. As a public policy initiative, the use of smart social media may in fact be a useful intervention to encourage patients to pursue healthy lifestyles while relieving pressures on health budgets. For this to happen, more research and analysis is required to better connect patients with their healthcare providers and to provide them with evidence-based, accurate information. As with any information on the web, not all ‘channels’ of information are reliable sources for patients (we’re looking at you, Dr. Oz). This is why physicians require training to help their patients navigate the realm of social media, keeping confidentiality and safety in mind. Guidelines must be established to protect patients who participate in online support groups, as many are already.

So the next time you offer counseling or education to a patient in an emergency department, medical ward or clinic, think about the impact that a patient-centered social media strategy could have. After all, increased patient knowledge leads to improved care and eventually, power.

Naheed Dosani is a family medicine resident and Jeremy Petch is a policy researcher. Both write at Healthy Debate, and can  found @NaheedD and @jeremypetch respectively, on Twitter.

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