Healthcare needs social media

by Claire McCarthy on September 18, 2012

Social media could transform health care. It’s already doing it.

I just spent the weekend at Medicine 2.0, an amazing conference on social media, mobile apps and the Internet as they pertain to health care. Granted, as a health blogger I’m a little biased. But what I saw is really the future of medicine.

Health care needs transforming. It costs way too much, for one thing. And while we’ve made tremendous discoveries and stretched the capabilities of medicine in incredible ways, we aren’t necessarily getting healthier. And in all our discovering and stretching, in all our cool technologies and emphasis on efficiency, we risk losing the personal connections that can be so crucial. Social media can help with all of this, for two simple and important reasons.

First, social media is all about relationships. One of the first presenters at the conference said this, and I couldn’t agree more. Facebook, Twitter, online support groups—they are all about sharing and interaction. And those are the building blocks for relationships.

Relationships are crucial to health. We know that people with more and stronger social connections are more likely to be well, and happy—social media can offer that. It can give people ways to not just interact with friends and family, but meet new people. There were lots of people at the conference talking about online support groups and the many ways they help patients, especially those with chronic disease. Elissa Weitzman of Boston Children’s is doing some great work with an online community for teens with diabetes.

Medicine itself is all about relationships. If you have good relationships with your health care providers, it helps you get better health care. In good relationships, both sides listen more, and tell more. When you trust someone, you are more likely to follow their advice. By finding ways for providers and patients to have conversations on social media, we could strengthen and support those relationships. This is a new frontier for us, and we’ll need to be thoughtful about how we do it, but if we can do face transplants and cure leukemia, I think we can figure out a way for doctors and patients to be together on social media.

Second, social media is all about communication. I spent a lot of time thinking about during the conference—because we need more ongoing, real-time communication in health care. Not just the communication that happens in support groups, although this is important, but communication that allows us to give information back and forth.

The most common problems I see in my patients are obesity, asthma, and school or behavioral problems. All of these are problems that are complicated, that involve home and lifestyle and can change from day to day. I can’t even begin to do them justice in a 15 minute visit every few months. But if I could be in touch with people regularly, and know what’s going on, and work together with them, I might actually make a difference. One doctor from the Center for Connected Health here in Boston talked about how they managed to cut readmissions for congestive heart failure in half—just by having patients check their weight and blood pressure and sending the information in to the health care team, who made any necessary changes with them. That’s huge.

Communication helps people learn things from each other. Through support groups and other sites, patients sometimes learn things that sometimes their doctor doesn’t even know—medicine changes quickly, and nobody can keep track of everything—and doctors can learn from not just other doctors but patients, too.

Communication can help in a bigger-picture way, too. By keeping track of online communication, Jonathan Brownstein and his colleagues at HealthMap have been able to track disease outbreaks as they happen, which lets us get help where it’s needed quickly—and teaches us so much about disease. Through sites like PatientsLikeMe, where people share information about themselves and their health and treatments, we have the opportunity to learn about diseases and treatments and side effects in ways we have never been able to do before.

The technology is incredible—the possibilities of mobile apps and the Internet are truly endless.  That’s the beauty of this, really: social media takes science and technology and mixes it with two fundamental human needs, relationships and communication.

Sounds like the perfect prescription for health care.

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