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Three reasons why patients should consider using social media


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. 

Naheed Dosani is a Family Medicine Resident with the Department of Community and Family Medicine at the University of Toronto and is  training at St. Michael’s Hospital.

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6 comments

  1. Kathryn Bremner

    Good article, Naheed! I use social media often to find out about medical issues and/or treatments, research, etc. particularly as I get older. I actually looked for information last night about a condition that a friend has that I knew very little about. Being educated about your health is the best line of defence and helps you to make informed decisions about treatment that may be recommended by your doctor.

    Perhaps a simple pamphlet about using social media, written in language that is easily understood, would be a helpful tool for patients.

    All the best,

    Kathryn

  2. Sameer Ahmed

    As a two time cancer survivor I can honestly say it would have been a million times harder for me if I didn’t have access to social media during that period of my life. I would log on to Facebook and read the posts in the Lymphoma group about people going through similar experiences as me and other who had been through it in the past. Posting my own experiences also helped as many people supported me with their kind words and prayers as well as providing useful advice on how to handle what I was going through.

    Extremely informative post Naheed and it is definitely something everyone should think about.

    Keep up the good work!

  3. Sarah

    I agree, the difference between just searching the web is that, often one does not know what is real because there is just so much out there, whereas reading blogs/social media one tends to identify with what other people say or did in certain situations. One is able to share and learn at the same time.

    This tool has helped not just me but also my family to cope and understand terminology etc., during some extremely stressful times.

    Good work!

  4. Shaleen Somji

    Thanks for this great article (and the shout-out!)!

    As a health care provider, I use social media to interact with patients and keep up to date on research and literature. Currently I’m using Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and a personal blog to interact with the public, providing tips, advice, articles, and motivation to encourage Canadians to live a healthy and active lifestyle. This reflects what I do in the office as well, my patients know that I take the time to explain their condition and treatment, and I am guided by evidence-based methods in how I assess and treat patients.

    Thanks again,

    – Shaleen (@DrSomji)

  5. Ashley Miller

    It is so true that patient engagement with their health care provider and other patients through social media is critical in navigating the system with a new diagnosis…

    I would take this one step further and argue that the technological engagement of patients through social media could actually profoundly impact medical practice itself! Jamie Heywood created http://www.patientslikeme.com/ after his brother was diagnosed with ALS in an effort to learn from other patients’ experiences with the disease. He discusses the concept in a brilliant TEDTalk: http://www.ted.com/talks/jamie_heywood_the_big_idea_my_brother_inspired.html.

    What is particularly amazing is that he was able to capture patient information and synthesize the data to determine the effectiveness of a relatively new medical intervention (in this case, lithium). As he alludes to in the talk, this was reported a year ahead of the multi-million dollar NIH clinical trial showed futility. While there are evident and important implications regarding the quality of this type of study as compared to a randomized, double-blinded control trial, there is undeniable potential in harnessing patient engagement to garner evidence and impact treatment decisions.

  6. Emily Nicholas

    I’m always glad to read articles which promote the engagement of patients in their own health care. Social media provides opportunities for increased patient-practitioner communication, patient education and empowerment. As you mention, these sorts of influences can potentially provide relief to an over-burdened system while also improving the patient experience.
    As respected members of the medical community (such as yourself) increasingly advocate for the use of social media, the credibility of the medium grows. However, you rightly point out that for its broad and effective use, ” . . . research and analysis is required . . .” in order to provide ” . . . evidence-based, accurate information.”
    I hope that in 2013 we see a more concerted effort to investigate and measure effects of the use of social media on the health care system. Furthermore, let’s get patients themselves involved in these investigations – engaging them in determining how social media can be designed to best meet their needs! Another healthy debate 😉

    Great work Naheed.

    Best,

    Emily Nicholas
    Patients’ Association of Canada

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