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Social Media- A Unicorn or Just a Horse?

Submitted by on July 25, 2012 – 3:54 AM One Comment

The term “Social Media” describes tools, websites and software that allows people to connect and share. The best way to define social media is to break it down. Media is an instrument on communication, like a newspaper or a radio, so social media would be a social instrument of communication. Regular media is a one-way street where you can read a newspaper or listen to a report on television, but you have very limited ability to give your thoughts on the matter.

Social media, on the other hand, is a two-way street that gives you the ability to communicate too. As social media becomes an increasingly popular and accessible way to communicate, more and more people are turning to social networks to find out information about their doctors and health care providers. This can be both positive and negative for patients and doctors. Social Media sites like Twitter, Face book, LinkedIn and YouTube are changing the world. “Social media used to be a part of our life and now, our life is a part of social media”.  Social media is definitely taking over our life, and now we’re loving it!

Social Media Uses in Healthcare:

Social media may be used for a number of ways within the medical industry. New uses for social media are being developed every day, particularly in the medical industry. There are several ways that medical professionals may utilize social media, or social networking sites in the healthcare industry. We’re at the beginning of a revolution—the switch from informed consent to informed choice in medical decisions. Social media is playing a vital role in this transformation. The large-scale use of technology has had a significant impact on the global healthcare sector.

From new testing techniques to improved surgical equipment, technological advances have revolutionized the healthcare industry. Social media is one such tool that is rapidly transforming this segment. Social media platforms are fast becoming a cost-effective and easily accessible solution for both healthcare providers and online patients. Healthcare social media platforms like ACOR (Association of Cancer Online Resource) help expand our awareness of the range of options that may be available to us. ACOR online communities are for parents, caregivers, family members, and friends to discuss clinical and nonclinical issues and advances pertaining to all forms of a specific disease. Healthcare is on the bandwagon.

This new communication comes with low costs and a word of mouth impact unlike the one way traditional media. The audience for social media is widespread and diverse. Social media tools can be used to connect with employees, patients and physicians Participation in social media networks creates disintermediation and transparency. Hospitals and medical practice groups can solicit feedback simply by asking followers to give their opinion. This technique is also a powerful tool for employee engagement and physician satisfaction. Social media also affords organizations a chance generates and controls a stream of news and PR (Public Relation). Using these new tools it is possible to reinvent the news cycle and submit stories without relying on traditional outlets.

Social media provides an ideal platform for healthcare professionals for sharing ideas, experiences and medical journal articles with each other. With the increased accessibility of social media globally, it is now being used as a tool to foster serious discussion on healthcare issues. Apart from being an always-on support platform for patients in need of advice and treatment, social media also offers significant advantages and disadvantages to healthcare service providers. Its advantages are reduced costs – Social networking platforms offer huge cost benefits to healthcare providers, as the two-way online communication helps minimize the costs associated with paper, telephone calls and other overhead components.

Improved physician–physician collaboration – Social media provides an ideal platform for healthcare professionals to share ideas, experiences and medical journal articles with each other. Websites such as Sermo and Ozmosis enable doctors to collaborate and share their favorite articles and research using social bookmarking functions, postings and voting tools. This helps ensure better patient outcomes, as doctors can conveniently build their knowledge in real time and facilitate faster adoption of best clinical practices.

Wider reach with no geographic boundaries – Social media has the capability to reach a large audience within a few seconds. In case of critical emergencies such as natural disasters and disease outbreaks, social media has proved to be an effective tool. During the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in March 2011, Twitter acted as a lifesaver, as doctors could update chronically ill patients about various treatment locations. Also, during the 2009 H1N1 flu outbreak, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) used social media platforms to update users about the disease and its possible preventions. Its Face book page was followed by over 50,000 users, and H1N1 videos on YouTube were viewed over 2.6 million times.

Launch of new services – Certain healthcare providers prefer using social media tools such as blogs to introduce new services. This helps the provider achieve better publicity than it can through a regular press release or other media channels. Users can easily comment and share their feedback on the new service Talent search– As the healthcare industry requires specialized skills and expert knowledge, healthcare providers are moving beyond the traditional methods to search for workers with the required skill sets. Healthcare professionals are visiting social media platforms and professional portals such as LinkedIn to look for new opportunities.

Improved self-monitoring– Social media websites and healthcare portals such as WebMD provide a range of healthcare tools and applications that help the users to better understand their healthcare needs. WebMD tools like Fit-O-Meter, Food and Fitness Planner and Personal Diet Evaluator help the users conveniently monitor their daily healthcare and exercise requirements. Interaction with other patients to make informed choices – Healthcare portals such as PatientsLikeMe and iMedix help patients with similar medical conditions to connect with each other, discuss their conditions and make informed choices regarding doctors and medical treatments.

According to a June 2010 survey of 1,323 PatientsLikeMe members, 12 percent of patients changed their physicians as a result of interaction with other patients. The survey also highlighted that 22 percent of mood disorder patients required less in-patient care, subsequent to the regular interactions they had on the website. Readily available healthcare provider information – Several social media websites and healthcare portals help patients looking for a hospital or a healthcare facility in a particular locality. Websites such as ZocDoc and WebMD allow users to select doctors as per their specifications, and also help in booking appointments.

While social media can prove to be a boon for healthcare providers, it can also become a major threat to their reputation and credibility. Its disadvantages are, a number of challenges are associated with the use of social media in healthcare, which can present significant roadblocks to its rapid adoption Legal and liability concerns Interaction between healthcare providers and social media users may lead to various legal issues. Patient privacy violations – While communicating with a patient, healthcare providers risk violating the US Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which limits healthcare providers from disclosing any health-related information of patients without their consent.

Hospital employees can easily use social media websites to leak important hospital information or violate patient privacy rights. Fraud and abuse – Healthcare providers paying money to third parties to promote their services on social media platforms may violate laws aimed at preventing fraud and abuse. Licensing violations – Physicians and other healthcare providers risk violating regional licensing laws. A doctor providing online medical advice to a patient residing in another region might not be licensed to provide consultation in that region. Lack of accuracy- Misinformation about diseases and treatments is a major concern for patients using social media websites.

Due to the abundance of healthcare information on social media websites and portals, there is a high likelihood that the information will be inaccurate. Inaccurate information and non-verification of sources can be harmful to users, as they may consequently waste money, take risks with unnecessary tests and treatments, or dismiss serious symptoms that require immediate attention. Low availability of online doctors Users who wish to interact with online doctors have to settle for limited options. Doctors’ lack of both time and knowledge of social media hinders any form of comprehensive collaboration of social media and healthcare. A 2009 social media survey conducted by Medimix International revealed that 66 percent of the physicians either do not use, or do not have information about social media networking websites.

Although the various risks and challenges associated with social media may restrict healthcare providers in actively using these platforms, implementation of stringent policies and proper guidance can help healthcare providers in using social media more effectively. According to Dr Michael Bonning, “By being aware of the potential issues that social media can cause, and putting a few simple safeguards in place, doctors and medical students can enjoy social media without it coming back to haunt them in the future.” In summary, over the past few years, the healthcare landscape has evolved — to Health 2.0, wherein patients have assumed the role of active participants and seek control of their own health.

Individuals are now interacting on social media websites and healthcare portals, seeking to reduce the communication gap between patients and healthcare providers. This rapid transformation is making healthcare delivery more patient-centric, and empowering users to make informed decisions about their health. Further, as doctors begin dealing with more informed patients, the time spent on patient care and the related costs will likely decrease, leading to improved overall standards of care. Better self-management of one’s health could also help governments to control the growing healthcare costs and deal with the problem of staff shortages in the healthcare sector.

Although some caution is necessary to deal with concomitant challenges posed by the use of social media in healthcare, a rational strategy adopted by healthcare organizations and regulatory agencies can help the industry to adequately respond to this important change in the healthcare landscape and fully leverage the opportunities offered by it. But healthcare providers and professional societies need to provide more educational and efficient materials using this powerful tool to counteract misleading information. Social media is not the answer to every problem, but it is undoubtedly a useful and powerful advance in learning not only in the field of medicine but also in every aspect of life.



About the author: Zeba Unnisa is a 3rdyear medical student at The Deccan College of medical sciences, Hyderabad, India. She can be reached at: [email protected]


About this article: This article is competing for the JPMS International Medical Writing Contest 2012 for the theme: Social Media and Doctors. To learn more about the contest and to participate in it, follow this link:


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  • Drmanish2505

    its a good mixing of health and media……good luck…