Social media has inarguably taken the world by storm. From Twitter to Facebook, users worldwide are more connected now more than ever, and the healthcare industry has not been left out.
People are actively discussing health issues on social media, sharing experiences and engaging with healthcare professionals.
In 2012, Pricewaterhouse Cooper carried out a consumer survey of 1,060 U.S. adults, and the results—which were published in its aptly titled publication, Social Media “Likes” Healthcare—showed that one-third of U.S. consumers “are using the social space as a natural habitat for health discussions.”
Social media use is particularly high among patients with chronic diseases. A 2010 report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that more than one-half of e-patients living with chronic diseases consume user-generated health information.
But what are the specific ways social media has impacted medical care, especially for patients? We’ll take a look at the three major ways below.
These numbers present infinite opportunities for patients to connect not only with professionals, but also with people going through similar experiences. Patients can reach out to medical professionals and maintain relationships with them outside of the consulting room.
Online communities for patients, such as Facebook groups, are so popular that they have become the subject of scholarly research. A 2011 study found 620 breast cancer groups on Facebook containing a total of 1,090,397 members. These groups are used to raise awareness and funds and provide support.
What’s more, 88 percent of doctors use social media to research pharmaceutical, biotech and medical devices, and 60 percent of doctors say social media improves the quality of care delivered to patients. Clearly, it’s a win-win for both doctors and patients.
Less widely known sites such as Doximity work like Facebook, allowing medical practitioners to connect and interact with each other.
This is by far one of the most important ways social media has impacted health care. 80 percent of internet users are specifically searching for health information, and 40 percent of those are looking for a specific doctor or healthcare professional. This is interesting because 72 percent of all internet users are active social media users.
Of course, seeking health information on the internet presents its own problems: People are much more likely to wrongly self-diagnose or to access wrong information.
“The Internet is full of nonsense, hype, clickbait and ridiculous information about all kinds of health and medical elixirs and remedies that have no basis in fact,” says Art Caplan from the division of medical ethics at the School of Medicine at New York University. And he rightly poses the question: “If you think about it, how often do you actually see a doctor, an established scientist out there, trying to correct or engage the public with scientific, verified, evidence-based information?”
The bright side is that 60 percent of social media users are also more likely to trust social media posts by doctors over any other group. Leading healthcare organizations and companies have obviously gotten the message and are actively building their social presences, effectively reaching consumers where they hang out. More hospitals, professionals, and clinics are getting online and putting the right information where their patients can access them.
Take the approach of the New York Dynamic Neuromuscular Rehabilitation and Physical Therapy (NYDNRehab) clinic, an 18-year old private establishment specializing in rehabilitation and physical therapy. The clinic understands that a lot of misinformation exists online in the physical therapy niche, and traditionally, it would be difficult for patients to access quality information. This is why it has completely embraced social.
The clinic regularly shares actionable tips with thousands of its followers on Twitter and Facebook. For more difficult concepts, such as virtual reality using Computer-Assisted Rehabilitation Environment (CAREN), it turns to YouTube, recording detailed videos of typical sessions at the clinic. The clinic director, Lev Kalika, also actively engages on Yelp, addressing even the most negative reviews about the clinic.
“Communication is a big part of our responsibility in talking with the public,” says Caplan. “I think doctors and scientists, to be regarded as professionals, really should take on the duty of trying to be an antidote to what is often nonsense, or worse than nonsense, in the social media world.”
On social media, power has changed hands. Social media has given patients the space to vent their frustrations and anger and to collectively follow up on causes they feel most compelled to join. This keeps healthcare providers and policymakers on their toes. A patient who has a bad experience at a particular healthcare facility is only one tweet or Facebook post away from sharing the experience with the world.
But accountability is not a one-sided affair. For patients, sharing experiences of their own health struggles, such as weight-loss efforts, also makes them accountable. A study conducted at the Georgia Institute of Technology found that people who expressed positive sentiments on Twitter were more likely to reach their diet goals. Social media, for all of its ills, still present great ways for people to improve their health.
Although social media presents a lot of benefits in terms of information access and improving public relations with healthcare professionals, many medical practitioners are still reluctant about joining the bandwagon, with the top reason being the blurred lines between what is appropriate to share on social media and what is not.
One thing is clear, though: Healthcare organizations that are serious about reaching more audiences or interacting better with existing audiences should be on social media. As the internet evolves, the right balance between information sharing and relationship building on social media for the healthcare industry will gradually emerge.
Pius Boachie is a freelance writer and inbound marketing consultant who works closely with business-to-consumer and business-to-business brands on providing content that gains social media attention and increases search-engine visibility. He shares actionable marketing ideas for businesses on his blog, Digimatic.