How Social Media Is Transforming the Health Care Field

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This post is authored by Ben Thomas.

Relationships between doctors and patients don’t stop at the office door. Prescriptions, medical records and home care instructions all involve the doctor’s office in a patient’s day-to-day management of his or her medical condition. In the age of social media, though, patients are expanding their searches for information beyond the clinic altogether. Not only do 80% of Americans search for health care information online, they’re also posing direct questions to experts on top-trafficked networks like Facebook and Twitter. This conversational shift opens up new opportunities for social media developers and storytellers – as two experts in health care social media explain here.

It’s In Demand

“Whether you’re a physician or patient, you’re a consumer of social media,” says John Hallock, vice president of corporate communications at CareCloud, a health care IT company. “So patients are increasingly looking for physicians to communicate with them in similar ways they get most of their other information online – via a social media conduit.” This means that patients are more open to public dialogues about their health needs than ever – and also more vulnerable to misinformation.

“A lot of people do impersonate physicians, says Tom Lee, partner at Symplur, a health care social media consultancy. “The threat is definitely out there.” This is why it’s more crucial than ever for health care professionals to verify their certifications. Every physician in the country has a National Provider Identification Number, which registers them in a national database. If you’ve got a question about whether the person who’s giving you information is an actual doctor, there’s no harm in checking the federal database and verifying the person’s certification.”

Lee’s consultancy has verified the identities of 2,000 acting physicians on Twitter so far, just by cross-referencing that federal database – but the identities of many other advice-givers still remain to be verified. Even so, many online health care information providers – and patients – have turned out to be valuable sources of scientifically verified information, which has boosted the reputation of certain feeds and pages as trustworthy sources of medical advice.

It’s Empowering

As patients become more accustomed to getting all their day-to-day information via their favorite social networks, they’re also becoming more expectant that they’ll be able to interact with a doctor and his office via familiar social media conduits.

“If I’m a patient and I’ve had a test done, I want to get the results online,” Hallock says. “Then I want to go to a patient forum and ask others for input and advice. That’s becoming the norm, and will increasingly be the norm.”

For example, a person who’s just been diagnosed with a rare disease might have nowhere in the physical world to turn for advice from fellow patients – but many online health communities form without respect to geographical boundaries. Patients learn from one another, and go on to share what they learn. Even doctors have begun using social platforms as places for discussion and networking – especially groups of physicians from different countries who work on similar cases.

“A few years ago, you’d have no chance of that kind of meeting happening,” Lee says. “But now it’s commonplace.”

It’s evolving

The security and privacy around online interaction have to be very different from the standards involved in ordinary online interaction, given that patient health information is involved.

“There’s a lot of nervousness from some clinicians because patient privacy laws force them to be extremely careful about what they say in public,” Lee explains. Some clinicians steer clear of social media interaction as a result, fearing a malpractice lawsuit or at least a loss of credibility. “But my advice to them is simply, ‘don’t say anything on social media that you wouldn’t say in the elevator,’” Lee says.

In other words, new rules of doctor/patient interaction are taking shape around the increased connectivity – as well as the potentially decreased anonymity – of public social-media conversations; and not all those rules are entirely clear yet. By the same token, patient interactions with the clinic are starting to take shape around the conventions of social-media interfaces.

“We’re seeing a convergence between the interfaces consumers use in day-to-day life, like Facebook, and the interfaces and IT medical providers are starting to use in terms of their interactions with customers,” Hallock says. “It’s not happening overnight, but it’s happening. And providers who have that look and feel are finding that patients – as well as they themselves – want to use those interfaces rather than older, clunkier systems.”

As electronic records become a legal requirement for medical offices, still more aspects of the interaction are likely to become electronic – creating an increased need for interfaces and interactions that make it as easy to find out the results of a test as to check in on your friends’ statuses. Social media developers and brand storytellers still have major parts to play in the migration of clinical dialogue into the digital realm – and many of those parts are still unwritten.

As a member of the the Riley Guide writing team, Ben Thomas writes about jobs in radiologic technology, among other career fields in the healthcare industry.

Featured image courtesy user Stethoscope.

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