Social media can improve patients’ access to health care information and other educational resources. In the U.S., eight in 10 Internet users search for health information online, and 74% of these people use social media. Through social media, patients can join virtual communities, participate in research, receive financial or moral support, set goals, and track personal progress.
Physicians are also using social media to promote patient health care education. They tweet, make blog posts, record videos, and participate in disease-specific discussion forums focused on patient education. Such forums provide an important opportunity for physicians to distribute evidence-based information to counter inaccurate material on the Internet. In some social media forums, the public is provided with an opportunity to participate in these discussions.
Unlike other health advice that a patient might encounter online, physicians could use social media to develop messaging that may be more likely to resonate with and be acted on by patients. Some physicians believe that social media would be particularly beneficial for patients with chronic, rare, or fatal diseases; with questions about maternal or infant care; or with personal health-related goals, such as weight management.
The distribution of credible information has been proved to motivate observable behavioral changes within social networks. Research has begun to show that interventions based on social media can positively affect weight loss, tobacco cessation, risky sexual behaviors, and physical activity.
Patients are also using social media to connect with others affected by similar conditions. For example, the social networking site PatientsLikeMe (www.patientslikeme.com) provides a venue for patients to access information, suggestions, and support from other people who have the same disease or condition. Facebook groups also frequently focus on specific medical conditions. These groups actively engage in peer-to-peer support as well as fund-raising efforts for affiliated organizations and individuals.” (Ventola, C. L. (2014)
Poor Quality of Information
The main limitation of health information found on social media and other online sources is a lack of quality and reliability. Authors of medical information found on social media sites are often unknown or are identified by limited information. In addition, the medical information may be unreferenced, incomplete, or informal. While evidence-based medicine does not emphasize anecdotal reports, social media tend to emphasize them, relying on individual patient stories for collective medical knowledge. Similar problems exist with traditional online media; however, the interactive nature of social media magnifies these issues, since any user can upload content to a site. Social media users may also be vulnerable to both hidden and overt conflicts of interest that they may be incapable of interpreting.
Measures are available that may be useful in addressing this problem. Healthcare providers (HCPs) can guide patients to credible peer-reviewed websites where the information is subject to quality control. The World Health Organization is leading a request to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers to establish a new domain suffix that would be used solely for validated health information. The issuance of this domain suffix would be strictly regulated, and the content of websites with these addresses would be monitored to assure compliance with strict quality criteria. These domain addresses would be prioritized by search engines when providing results in response to health-related inquiries.” (Ventola, C. L. (2014)
Social Media Guidelines for
Issued by Professional Organizations
Some healthcare professional societies have issued guidelines for the use of social media. In 2012, the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP) released a statement regarding the use of social media by pharmacists. The ASHP advised pharmacists to provide clinical advice only in adherence with professional standards (i.e., when a complete history is known); to recognize when a patient’s needs would be better met by other means of communication; to provide timely and accurate information when appropriate; to rebut any misleading information; to protect patient privacy; and to maintain the pharmacist’s reputation during anonymous or personal use of social media. The ASHP also recommended that hospitals or health systems that allow the use of social media establish best practices in the form of policies and procedures that balance the benefits of social media with the potential risks and liabilities of such media.” (Ventola, C. L. (2014)
1. Social Networks and Community (Re)Engineering: Creating Health Through Information and Policy http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rh4B4m3ouRc
2. Ventola, C. L. (2014). Social Media and Health Care Professionals: Benefits, Risks, and Best Practices. Pharmacy and Therapeutics, 39(7), 491–520. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4103576/