Much like other advances in health information technology (HIT) such as electronic health records and telemedicine, social media is changing how doctors and patients interact. Social media empowers patients to seek out information, make more informed decisions, and partner with their health care providers on managing their care.
Historically, medical care has been primarily physician-centric — “take the doctor’s orders”; however, more recently, patients are playing an increasingly more active role in their treatment. At its very core, social media is a driver of a patient-centered model, promoting two-way continuous communication between supportive community networks, health care providers and patients through the most current, transparent, and immediate information available.
Three significant ways social media is transforming the health market and what it means to the future of patient care include:
1. Patient Empowerment. While previously physicians and health care professionals were the primary source of health information, online forums, including advice from peers, have advanced significantly in recent years through use of social media. Patients are using social media to discuss health conditions, seek out information about diseases, treatment options, and offer one another comfort throughout the treatment process. Patients can shop around and compare care options and outcomes through social media platforms such as PatientsLikeMe.com. Having access to expansive information empowers patients to be informed and educated advocates of their own care, and puts more control in their hands.
2. Real-Time Information and Instantaneous Feedback. Doctors have tweeted from the operating room a step-by-step outline of an entire surgical procedure – helping make procedures that have historically been daunting much more digestible. If a medication is recalled or an outbreak detected, physicians can push this information out to patients within seconds. Patients also have constantaccess to care via social networks and live chats; for example Booz Allen Hamilton developed and launched a mobile site for the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury’s Real Warriors campaign, which allows service members and veterans to connect with a masters level health resource consultant any time of the day or night.
3. Improved Doctor/Patient Relationships. By nature, social media encourages a two-way dialogue—this dialogue is helping to break down the barrier between physicians and patients. Recently, Booz Allen Hamilton helped Discovery Communication Health to develop a documentary “Health IT – Advancing Care, Empowering Patients”. The video features Bruce Hopper, Jr. M.D., a general practitioner who is a social media pioneer of sorts. Rather than seeing patients in the office, Hopper texts, sends instant messages, and video chats with patients as much as possible. He also frequently reaches out via Facebook and Twitter to share the latest links about health care information. By increasing availability and access, some patients in turn feel closer to their physician, that their input is more valid, and that they are a part of the treatment plan.
One challenge we must address as an industry related to social media in health care is regulation of content. Concerns about patient privacy, ethics, and return on investment are all valid topics that need to be formally addressed as this communications discipline evolves. For example, can a patient “friend” his or her physician on Facebook? What about doctors licensed in New York posting treatment information directed at patients in California? The stakes in this industry are high, and until clear lines are established we’re going to continue to face growing pains.
[See also: 9 ways health IT -- beyond EHRs -- helps patients.]
Despite challenges, platforms such as social media are transforming health care. HIT isn’t just for IT personnel anymore; patients and health care professionals are collaborating to generate customized solutions to individual patient health problems. In the coming years we will see more health related apps, more health blogs, and more Web-based technologies that either replace or enhance conventional care. The revolution is here and it’s happening now – social media is provocative, it's fresh, and it's changing the way we think about managing our health care for the better.
Chris Foster is a principal at Booz Allen Hamilton, where he focuses on strategic communications within the health business.