In November of 2011, I published an article in the Canadian Medical Association’s Future Practice journal on the benefits of the use of social media for physicians. Much of the feedback I received from healthcare professionals was positive. However, many commented on the lack of literature regarding patient use of social media. As a resident physician in Family Medicine, I often encourage my patients to access evidence-based information on the Internet. I have found social media to be an effective medium for this purpose and much more, for many of my patients.
The following are 3 reasons why patients could potentially benefit from the use of social media:
1. Your healthcare providers, clinics and hospitals are online and ready to interact with you. 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. Irfan Dhalla is a general internist at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, Ontario, interested in health and pharmaceutical policy research. Many health clinics (e.g. Markham Stouffville Hospital’s Health For All Family Health Team) 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 Toronto General & Western Hospital, use social media for similar purposes. Finally, various allied health professionals, like Dr. Shaleen Somji, a Toronto-based chiropractor, are readily present in the blogosphere as well.
2. Equip yourself 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. About Kids Health), health advocacy organizations (e.g. Canadian Patient Safety Institute), and health journalists (e.g. Globe & Mail Public Health Reporter Andre Picard), 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. 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 are at your doctor’s office, feel free to ask them, “So, what is your social media communications strategy?” After all, increased patient knowledge leads to improved care and eventually, power.