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Social Media Meets Health

Posted in: General Health 10 Jul, 2013

Once restricted to areas of amusement and public interaction, social media has flourished during the 21st century and is now a particularly useful tool for education and support.

As healthcare providers question whether it is completely right to leverage this power in the hope that people will engage more in healthcare, the public consider the ethical issues surrounding a ‘social media meets health’ mentality.

Will it detract from the very serious issues that healthcare providers have to deal with? Also, the very nature and instincts of humans pose the important question: Is it even possible?

What are the benefits?

All healthcare providers endeavour to improve public resources so that people can develop their knowledge of health conditions and ways to prevent and treat them. Social media, with its mass appeal, can do this in a number of different ways:

  • Spreading the word – Social media is a great way to publicise an event, whether that be a charity awareness day, high blood pressure clinic or pre-natal care group. Facebook and Twitter allow direct and instantaneous information to be distributed to the specific groups of people that need it the most. As patients update their status, ‘like’ something, follow a group or generally get involved in the social media circus, ideas and knowledge can be circulated, increasing awareness for a specific condition.
  • Getting patients together – Social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter provide a platform where like-minded individuals can join together and discuss opinions related to their common subject. For example, expectant mothers could join together through Facebook groups to discuss problems or common concerns. This way, patients can gain more knowledge and create what is known as “collective wisdom.”
  • Podcasts and videos – Both are engaging sources of information that can explain minor medical issues and help a patient adopt a healthier lifestyle. They can be easily promoted and disseminated via social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter, so that more people can be informed of symptoms and treatment options.

Many research studies have sought to confirm these positives and have found that a stable social network significantly improves health results. A large-scale California study in 1979 concluded that people who had a low level of social contact died earlier than those with strong social networks. With the help of social media, people are more likely to participate in social interaction and support. The possibilities have moved beyond the restraints of in-person contacts to an infinite pool of people with shared interests and concerns.

What are the risks?

Considering the differences between the UK health system and the USA’s model, there are a number of dangers that must be acknowledged if the public is to benefit from ‘social media meets health’ outlook. These drawbacks include:

  • Distractions – Healthcare providers should prioritise and focus on improving research and technology rather than dedicating time and resources to social media.
  • Bad information – Many critics of social media in health have hinted at the current difficulty people experience when ‘mining through acres of message boards in search of actionable information.’ The problem is that the process of finding credible information through social media is a laborious task. However, if healthcare providers implement their own forums or social media ‘groups’ with strict self-correcting policies, they will be able to supervise them by removing any misleading information or spam.
  • Confidentiality – Many healthcare providers are worried that the use of social networks may compromise patient privacy and may violate certain laws. If patients submit personal information online, any member of public can view it. Medical practices will have to be wary of these legalities if they are to take part in social media.

Moving Forward

There is no doubt in my mind that the use of social media as an accompaniment to healthcare will improve health resources and engage more people to be proactive about their health. This is essential in an environment where the public are increasingly looking towards the Internet in search of knowledge and support. So, the benefits of such a mentality will outweigh the risks but, the way healthcare providers implement this shift and the way legislation adapts to it will undoubtedly cause new concerns to arise.

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