Patients using Facebook for health information

Do you use Facebook to look for health information?

If you said “yes,” and use social networking sites to research your health, you could be in the minority, or majority, depending on which study you read.

Recently, a survey released by the National Research Corporation polled nearly 23,000 patients and found that 41% of them use social media sites to look for health information.  Of those, nearly 94% said Facebook was their site of choice.

It made intuitive sense, since Facebook is accumulating users at a record pace.

Not so fast, said Susannah Fox, of the Pew Internet and American Life Project.  I often cite Pew’s numbers when doing my social media talks, so I pay attention to what Susannah says.

According to Pew, in 2009, 39% of online patients used social media sites.  Of those, only 12% have gotten health information from those sites.  And those numbers haven’t changed much in 2010.

So, are patients increasingly relying on Facebook for their health information, as the recent headlines suggest?  Or is Facebook over-hyped as a tool for e-patients?

Whatever the numbers are — 94% or 12% — we cannot deny that social media will continue grow, and eventually become a source where a growing majority can research their health.  It underscores the responsibility of health professionals to educate patients to critically question what they read online.

For instance, a study from the Journal of General Internal Medicine, looked at the Facebook Wall posts from 15 of the largest diabetes communities.  Among its findings, “approximately 27% of posts featured some type of promotional activity, generally presented as testimonials advertising non-FDA approved, ‘natural’ products.”

When you’re talking about the diabetic population, herbal, or natural, remedies can interact with their medication regimen with potentially harmful effects.

Consider that only a quarter of patients check the source of the health information they read online.  That’s unacceptable. As physicians, we need to continue our efforts to get online, get social, and help patients find reputable health data that can potentially affect their health decisions.

 is an internal medicine physician and on the Board of Contributors at USA Today.  He is founder and editor of KevinMD.com, also on FacebookTwitterGoogle+, and LinkedIn.

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