In the next few editions of “Tech Talk,” I will discuss how social media affects health care. One of the areas we’ll explore is how physicians use social media, along with its various advantages and disadvantages. But, before I do that, I thought it would be most appropriate to assess how our patients are using different types of social media.
A Game Changer
“Social media” is ill-defined, and its definition is certainly evolving. In general, social media may include forums, blogs, podcasts and social bookmarking. According to a 2010 article published in Business Horizons by Andreas Kaplan and Michael Haenlein, professors of marketing at business school ESCP Europe in Paris, there are six different types of social media:
- collaborative projects (e.g., Wikipedia);
- blogs and microblogs (e.g., Twitter);
- content communities (e.g., YouTube);
- social networking sites (e.g., Facebook);
- virtual game worlds (e.g., World of Warcraft); and
- virtual social worlds (e.g., Second Life).
Not surprisingly, men older than 65 are the least likely to participate in health care-related social media. Predictably, Generation X (34 to 45 year olds)—particularly the women in this group—are most likely to use the Internet to find information and to look for other people with similar health-related problems. Patients and families with rare disorders are much more likely to search online for others with similar problems. These patients frequently have a difficult time finding competent health care providers, and virtual social networks provide viable resources for information and identification of knowledgeable physicians.
Without a doubt, social media has been a game changer. A colleague of mine says that good news travels at the speed of sound, and bad news travels at the speed of light, i.e., via the Internet. It is true: We are all more likely to complain about problems or dissatisfactions than to give accolades for success.
Fear of Missing Out
I will readily admit that I’m not an expert in social media. I have a Facebook account but avoid it like the plague, and I don’t tweet. This issue is really simple for me: I have enough trouble keeping up with the 100 to 150 daily e-mails I receive, and I don’t want another electronic tether. However, if I had more time, I could very easily get sucked into these formats.
My paranoia is not without foundation. It turns out that social media can be quite addictive! In a study from the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda at the University of Maryland (available at withoutmedia.wordpress.com), college students were found to be “addicted” to multiple forms of social media. They have a “fear of missing out” (dubbed “FOMO”), and it seems to be related to the number of social sites they participate in and the way they access the information—in other words, the kind of device they have. Mobile devices are far and away the most popular method used to access social media sites. One of the conclusions of the study was that all of this media is having a profound effect on students and has distinctive social and probably moral implications regarding behavior.
Think for a minute about how this technology is shaping our societies. Many younger people now use Facebook and Twitter to get their news in short—sometimes very biased—tidbits from friends, politicians or bloggers with an ax to grind. It is well recognized that the “Arab Spring” would not have happened or been successful without the use of several types of social media. There are even allegations that the CIA was blindsided by the Egyptian uprising because the agency failed to follow developments on Twitter and YouTube. We’ve all seen it—anyone with a cell phone can now upload an event to YouTube, and the event is easily accessible worldwide.
Finding Other Patients
So how are our patients getting their health care information, and how do they use the Internet and social media? Susannah Fox wrote an article in 2011 for the Pew Research Center entitled “Peer-to-Peer Healthcare” (available at pewinternet.org/Reports/2011/P2PHealthcare.aspx) that looked specifically at how patients acquire their health information. It turns out that health care providers are the trusted source for diagnosis, recommended treatment options and medications regardless of the age or gender of the patient. But, most patients resort to family and friends for emotional support—and that support is frequently found online. Different types of social media have become the conduit for finding other like-minded patients and caregivers.
Finding patients with similar diseases or symptoms is greatly facilitated by search engines for the entire Internet. Pick your favorite rare disease, search for it with tags for support groups or resource, and you will be amazed at how fast you can find a relevant site. Some are restricted to patients and require registration, while others are free and open. If you want to get an idea of the number of these types of sites available, go to the Pharma and Healthcare Social Media Wiki (available at doseofdigital.com/healthcare-pharma-social-media-wiki) or supportgroups.com for a sampling. I lost count of the number of groups sponsored by patients, health care-oriented groups, pharmacies, hospitals, and so on when I reviewed these sites. As far as I can tell, no one has an exhaustive list.
Clearly, the idea that social media sites are a mechanism that can connect patients with similar problems is now well entrenched in health care, and it will only continue to expand.
Next time, I’ll explore how the industry is starting to utilize social media. (Hint: The platform essentially provides free, targeted advertising.)
Rodney Lusk, MD, is director of the Boys Town Ear, Nose and Throat Clinic and Cochlear Implant Center at Boys Town National Research Hospital in Omaha, Neb. He has been working with EMRs since 1996. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.