by: Mark Ryan, MD*
[Editors note: First of a two part series by guest writer Dr. Mark Ryan, who is interested in how social media can be used to promote patient empowerment,
health and wellness.]

In these last few months, I have been lucky enough to discuss the use of social media with physicians in a number of settings. One of the major themes of these discussions is determining the value of social media that makes it worth adding to a physician’s day already filled with patient care, insurance, and other administrative work. I hope to make the point here that social media has a significant role to play in enhancing medical practice and that this role could increase in the future.

Today, we can instantly communicate with friends and access enormous amounts of information, often from a hand-held device. However, reliable health care information has not been as easily available.

Patients have responded to this absence by developing online communities such as Patients Like Me in order to advise each other regarding illnesses, treatments, and side effects. This development is sometimes labeled the e-patient movement: patients who are empowered, equipped, enabled, — equals with their physicians in making care decisions. These are patients who are activated and want to be partners in their care and are looking for resources to help them. Increasingly, they are looking online via social media tools.

Some of those resources are found via the concept of health 2.0. In more traditional styles of health care communication (health 1.0), information was held by an expert (the physician) and dispensed to patients as the physician saw fit. In health 2.0, communication can flow in any direction among physicians, patients, caregivers, patient advocates, allied health providers, and others. More and more of this information is disseminated via user-generated content such as blogs, videos, Twitter and Facebook updates which are created by patients and others. This user-generated content personalizes the health care experience and ensures that patients learn from one another how best to negotiate their health care. It allows patients to discuss worries and fears they might not be comfortable expressing elsewhere and that might be overlooked by more traditional sources of information.

The goal of health 2.0 is to empower patients to improve their health and their health care. Below are some potential uses of social media that have the potential to improve public and individuals’ health:

Public health:

  • Broadcast important public health information
  • Broadcast public health advisories: emergency responses, disease outbreak management and response
  • Answer general medical questions and be a resource to the community for general topics
  • Health care advocacy in the legal and political arenas
  • Help patients find necessary resources, including free clinic services, healthfairs, and dental screenings

Individual health:

  • Send disease-specific reminders, e.g.have you checked your blood sugar or haveyou taken your medicine?
  • Patients can choose to receive tweets or Facebook updates as text messages if they follow a social media account
  • Use Facebook or Twitter direct messages to ask patients to contact the office to schedule appointments, follow-up, etc.
  • If/when secure portals enter wider use, we could refer patients directly intocare via E-visits or other portal-based services
  • Record videos that can help patients improve their self-care (if patients) orhow to care for others (if caregivers)

Social media can also be used to enhance medical student and resident teaching by moderating virtual journal clubs, recording talks, & presentations for learners to view when it will be most valuable for them. For physicians, there are also personal and professional benefits such as the potential to collaborate on talks, projects and blogs. New medical information and information sources can be discovered as well new acquaintances and friends.

In part 2, I will discuss what I see as the pros and cons of various social media platforms as well as cautions for physicians entering the conversation stream.

Note about author:

Dr. Mark Ryan works at the Department of Family Medicine, Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center and is also a member of the Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media Advisory Board. He has spent his career working in rural and urban medically under-served communities in Virginia and on medical student teaching. He is an active participant in the #hcsm and #MDchat Twitter chats where you can follow him as @RichmondDoc, and is a contributor to the Social Media Healthcare blog.

A slide presentation containing many of these ideas can be found here