Social media has markedly changed the way people interact with their healthcare providers, changing the status quo when it comes to accountability and taking control of decisions. The factors that set social media apart from other forms of communication include its immediacy, interactivity, and that the fact that a significant amount of the content is developed by the user, rather than the provider.

As is generally the case with social media, its effects have been both positive and negative. Understanding these effects is central to ensuring that we get the most use out of it, with minimal risks.

In its recent publication, Social Media “likes” healthcare, PWC found that 42% of consumers in the United States have used social media to access health-related consumer reviews (e.g. of treatments or physicians). Nearly 30% have supported a health cause, 25% have posted about their health experience, and 20% have joined a health forum or community. The implication here is that there is an enormous amount of information available that has been created by the consumers of health services.

In developing regions, smartphone use has “leapfrogged” ahead of computers because of problems with traditional internet connectivity. The World Health Organization’s article What Social Media Offers to Health Professionals and Citizens states that there are more than 4 billion mobile phone subscribers globally, two-thirds of them in developing countries, with the fastest in Africa. This means that people in developing parts of the world often have similar levels of access to social media as those in industrialized nations, and often have more reason to use it, for example as a way of overcoming geographical isolation.

The kind of information provided by consumers that might help others includes discussions of symptoms, treatments and healthy lifestyle issues, as well as moral support for members of the forum undergoing treatment or suffering from a particular illness. People who want to lose weight, or quit smoking or other substances have been shown to stick to their health regimes more faithfully when sharing their experiences with other people in similar positions, and when they feel they are in some way accountable to other people in the forum.

“Building connections among people with similar health challenges gives us a much better shot at helping them achieve their goals,” says lead health insurer Aetana’s head of consumer solutions, Meg McCabe.

What’s more, a significant number of people have also used social media platforms to support a health-related cause, whether this involves signing petitions against harmful drugs, donating money towards research or the treatment of an individual in need. In fact, 30% of people interviewed for the PwC report mentioned above said that they had used social media for this purpose.

From a service provider point of view, providing information over a social media platform can help to free up a doctor’s time; there are many cases in which patients do not need to physically see a doctor, but rather require certain information.

Importantly, consumers are also able to broadcast their experiences with particular healthcare providers and medications, holding hospitals, doctors and pharmaceutical companies to account for the way that they are experienced by the consumer, as they risk losing business should information surface that discredits them in any way.

A constructive by-product of the circulation of all this information has been the rise in the amount of health-related data available to researchers as patient experiences, responses to medication, as well as more qualitative information regarding their lifestyles than is often available through traditional medical consultations.

While social media has provided many advantages, the possible downsides must be considered as well. The danger of incorrect self-diagnosis increases dramatically when members are able to communicate over supposedly credible platforms without any contribution by a medical practitioner; 45% of consumers in the PWC study said it would affect their decision to seek a second opinion.

“More than 40% of respondents reported that information found via social media would affect the way they coped with a chronic condition, their approach to diet and exercise, and even their choice of doctor.”

Although this can be helpful, it can also be based on inaccurate and incomplete information, which can endanger the patient. The other concern that arises with the sharing of personal information of any kind over social media platforms is that of privacy – a reality that should always be taken into account.

The positive and negative effects of social media on the healthcare system can therefore be summarized as follows:

Positive Negative
  • Access to information in developing regions
  • Support and mutual accountability on online health forums
  • Support for health-related causes
  • Helping health services to prioritize critical cases
  • Increased accountability to consumers
  • More data available to health researchers
  • Incorrect self-diagnosis
  • Potential breach of privacy

 

It is clear that social media is having a marked effect on healthcare systems, and that its impact is relevant both in the developed and developing worlds. Healthcare service providers face a significant opportunity in the chance to leverage this in order to provide better healthcare to a greater number of people, while consumers are able to use it to empower themselves, their families and their communities.

Part of a series on the top ten trends in social media.

Author: Garth Japhet is Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Heartlines, a South African not-for-profit organization.

Image: Joggers in Singapore. REUTERS/Edgar Su