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Healthcare Social Media: Healing or Hurting?

April 20, 2012 11 comments

The Social Health Web

Social web sites are growing as a health care medium. They connect patients with each other and with care givers. Social media are a conduit for patients to share their health concerns and gain knowledge. But they may also be a rumor mill of misinformation.

So far the US healthcare system has been slow to adopt social media for the exchange of health information, leaving patients to find other sources.  Two recent studies show a growing gap between patients’ needs and hospitals’ delivery of a quality social health experience.

Hospitals Not Delivering

A new report by CSC shows US hospitals lag far behind hospitals in countries such as the Netherlands and the UK in the use of social media to deliver health information. According to the study, only 27% of urban hospitals and 10% of rural hospitals in the US deploy social media sites.

Yet according to a report by consulting firm PWC, patients use social sites like Facebook as an important source for health information. Of 1,024 consumers studied, 24% say they post health information on social media sites and 45% said they would use information from social media sites as justification for seeking a second opinion.

Health professionals should be alarmed by these findings. Facebook and Twitter take second guessing physicians’ medical recommendations to a new dimension.

Why anyone would use hundreds of Facebook friends as a sounding board for whether to have surgery is beyond me, but the evidence suggests that it’s happening with more frequency.  And with the ease and anonymity of internet publishing, anyone can present themselves as a medical expert.

Privacy Concerns Versus Information Sharing

Why don’t more hospitals use social media? Concerns about liability and patient privacy are the primary reason. Clearly, the freewheeling give and take of social media commentary interferes with the doctor-patient relationship.

But here’s the problem, patients will seek the information wherever they can find it. We humans are a curious sort. We pay no attention to our health until we get sick. Then we plumb the internet for any source we can find for as much information we can get.

Physicians often spend more time wading through patients’ questions about alternative treatments and self diagnoses than they do in actual treatment. The physician’s role as the sole source of medical information went out of fashion with Marcus Welby, M.D.

It’s a classic case of if you can’t lick ’em, join ’em. Why not be seen as the best source of medical information and clinical sharing? It’s unfortunate that aversion to risk prevents hospitals from using social media’s potential for healing by placing the patient at the center a continuum of care through social communities of physicians, case managers, family and friends.

What do you think? Are hospitals obligated to create social media sites and share health-related information with patient communities? Share your comments by clicking on “comments” at the top of the page.

Photo credit: Health in 30

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