While social media in general, including its platforms and uses, has been rapidly evolving in recent years as witnessed by the meteoric rise of services like Facebook and Twitter, many niches have been quietly utilizing the same technologies towards powerful ends and the medical community serves as a fine example of this.
According to Build Muscle, from initial repositories like Google Health to the various forums and “ask a question” sites that drive much of the search traffic concerning the many medical ailments that affect all seven billion of us every day, the use of social media to share symptoms and tentatively diagnose potential health problems is quickly becoming the first and foremost way that people utilize medical information and care.
As is the case with any new and far-reaching phenomenon, the case of social media-savvy patients presents both pros and cons that are worth considering as the effect on doctor-patient relationships everywhere increases.
The ill-informed patient and the misinformed patient
While doctors may groan inwardly at the thought of know-it-all patients who have self-diagnosed and are hostile to differing ideas, the internet in general and social media in particular are helping patients to better understand their symptoms and warning signs, often seeing them to the doctor sooner and saving additional time, money and hassle in the long run.
Because medical advice and information is strewn so widely around the web, most often in completely unregulated and unmoderated venues, there is a tremendous amount of panic-driven misinformation out there and this is an area where focused social medical efforts could change ill-informed and misinformed patients into patients who have a positive attitude about and added confidence in their doctor’s diagnosis and treatment plan given their pre-existing knowledge.
Patients as doctors: contributing to our collective medical knowledge
One oft-overlooked but wonderfully helpful side effect of patients sharing and learning via social media is the new source of collective medical data that accumulates. With research studies being expensive endeavors most often left to medical schools and typically outside the realm of common physicians, websites such as PatientsLikeMe.com have proven via their paper published in the journal Nature on the ineffectiveness of lithium on Lou Gerhig’s disease that patient gathered data can be of great use to medical professionals of all stripes.
While the example used above is the only one of its kind to date, the rapid evolution of internet and social media technologies certainly suggests that the trend of patient-gathered data will continue and all of us, doctors and laymen alike, would do well to take advantage of it in the name of increased medical knowledge and improved health sciences.
Doctors as leaders in social media
Most of the problems that arise in social media-savvy patients are ones of misinformation as patients bounce from internet forum to private website and back again in their search for information and reassurance. Given their medical expertise and professional bedside manners, social media-savvy doctors could, in turn, use their knowledge to join patients in sharing accurate, well-categorized information on symptoms, causes, diagnoses, treatment methods, medicines and more via either an active role on existing websites or the creation of a properly centralized, doctor-moderated online database accessible to all.
No matter which opinion you hold, whether as a medical professional or a layman, about the growing trend of patients “in the know” due to the wonderful tool that is the internet, it is safe to say that this is one trend that is unlikely to tail off, ever. People are rightly passionate about their health and will continue to spend time researching their ailments online whether that research takes place via Google search (and possible specific niche sites like this one on Abdominoplasty or another one on Diabetes) or huge information and community portals like PatientsLikeMe.com, Yahoo! Answers or Wikipedia. Given this fact, medical professionals need to decide, both individually and as a group, how to tackle this potential problem and turn it into a boon for all involved.