Repairing the tear in health care’s safety net with social media

The nation’s “safety net” hospitals are designed to ensure that uninsured, lower income and indigent populations receive adequate medical care – a noble and necessary function within the U.S. healthcare system.  No one dedicated to the field of care giving can deny the importance of providing appropriate medical care for this population.  The safety net is literally a lifeline for many in need.

But for all of the vital and positive roles that this provision provides within the fragile healthcare spectrum, it is also sorely impaired.  While it is virtually impossible for every segment of a massive network such as the U.S. healthcare system to operate glitch-free, there clearly is a “tear” in our healthcare safety net – especially when it comes to emergency room usage.

The overall concept of the safety net was designed in 1965 to provide a network of community-based organizations to facilitate care to an uninsured population – now approximately 45 million – with the ultimate aim of preventing illness and reducing overall costs.  But the safety net simply isn’t broad enough to handle the weight of the demand.  Today, millions of Americans use the ER as their primary physician – visiting emergency rooms for routine care, rather than life threatening emergencies.  In addition, safety net patients often undergo unnecessary and expensive tests, ordered in large part, to prevent possible malpractice.   The end result:  Patients are relying on the ER for rudimentary care that could be better handled in a physician’s office, at a neighborhood clinic – or better yet – possibly be prevented through advanced care.

There’s another often overlooked aspect of the healthcare system:  social media.  More and more, doctors are going online to meet patients where they are, the Web.  And just as the internet has transformed the way consumers get information about hotels and restaurants, social media is changing the way patients get access to medical information and physicians.  Today, Google serves over 1.2 billion health searches per month, and according to a 2010 Pew Internet survey, 80% of Internet users search for health information online.

This presents a massive opportunity for healthcare providers to address consumer health concerns before they manifest into visits to the ER.  Stronger patient education is one of the keys to reversing the safety net problem.  And while social media is by no means a replacement for in-person care, it should be a viable means for consumers to get safe, trusted health information from medical professionals online that provides enough orientation and preventative guidance that they do not need to visit the ER for routine care.

America needs to reverse the role of the safety net system back to its designated place of original design – with safety net care serving critical need patients without insurance or other economic means who require both proactive and reactive medical care.  We remain optimistic that healthcare reform will address some of these critical issues – and help to deploy more efficient protocols.  In the interim, we are hopeful that consumers and physicians will recognize the role that “information sharing” can play in empowering both patients and doctors to collectively embrace better, more accessible solutions.

Mark Britton is the founder and CEO of Avvo, a free resource that rates and profiles 90% of all doctors and lawyers in the U.S.

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