Can social media promote global health?

by Eliah Aronoff-Spencer, MD, PhD

Lately I’ve been using social media sites like Quora and Stack Overflow and I’m awed by the intelligent and creative solutions that arise from collective conversation and collaboration.

We hear about Twitter-revolutions and see sites like Ushahidi empowering Africans and shedding light on government misdeeds. We see the world coming together through the Internet and simple cell and smart phones to coordinate disaster relief from Haiti to Japan without government intervention or economic incentives.  The question is can we use this technology to make healthcare better?

I, like many, think the answer is an overwhelming yes. Social media allows more people to take part in the discussion and share knowledge. It creates cognitive and real surpluses that can free up our resources to deal with essential needs and it democratizes the decision making process so that needs find solutions rather than the other way around.

As an infectious disease doc working in both the U.S. and Africa I have been struck by the common misconception that more money can improve healthcare- in fact, too much money may be the problem, it skews incentives towards profitable solutions rather than healthful behavior and affordable applications and makes a market out of sickness rather than health promotion. In America we have been fixated on this model and are finding decreasing returns for our dollars. Will this be any different in the rest of the world?

For many global health issues (both at home and in developing countries alike) what we need is better communication and better allocation of the resources we already have.  We need to promote wellness and prevent illnesses before they require expensive treatments, stop the spread of disease before it becomes epidemic and promote sustainable and affordable solutions over costly and complicated treatments; we need to make patients intelligent moderators of their own health by supporting healthful living through lifestyle education, preventative healthcare and of course, access to basic necessities such as food, water and shelter.  Most people intuitively know this, but when you actually go to practice medicine it Is not what you see. Rather we often use costly treatments and quick fixes after the fact that are more expensive in the long run.

Social media can help with these problems at many levels. Individuals can benefit from better access to health knowledge and better community coordination for solving civic needs. Healthcare providers can become better practitioners by accessing the latest evidence and conferring with experts around the world, and can do more with what they have using better record keeping and decision support. At the level of healthcare systems- information doesn’t have to trickle in any more. Rather, data on diseases, disasters and resource-needs can be recorded and communicated in real time, alleviating huge inefficiencies that hobble coordinated efforts.

Social media can’t cure disease; it can’t stop the spread of cholera or prevent earthquakes and tsunamis from ravaging communities. But it can change how we deal with these issues. It can help individuals cooperate and engage in collective problem solving and provide an ecosystem for developing and implementing new solutions. My suspicion is that many readers know this. My question is how can we work together to create open and affordable solutions to promote sustainable global health?

Eliah Aronoff-Spencer is an infectious disease physician.

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