Picture this: You’re patiently sitting in a medical office, scrolling through your Instagram feed when a story pops up with the doctor, you’re about to see is explaining a complicated medical case, that pertains to you.
Likes. Comments. Hearts. Hashtags. DM’s. Tweets. Blogs. Podcasts.
In the past ten years, social media has exploded in popularity, and in doing so, revolutionized the way we interact with people.
From common friendships to business relationships, we have adopted a new way to communicate and learn from one another.
But how and why is this relevant to medicine?
In a world where you can consult a psychiatrist via face time, discuss your teeth with your dentist from a thousand miles away, or get a general consultation from your computer screen, health care is more digital than ever before.
What does that mean for the army of health care professionals who pair their digital services with an online presence, especially on social media?
Can you really learn from a health care professional on social media if you follow them for long enough?
Going further… Will watching the life of a health professional sway your decision on when to go visit a doctor?
The polls are in, and for the majority, the answer is yes.
To understand the nuanced dynamic between healthcare and digital media, we must first understand that all of the social platforms being used, no matter the platform, share five pillars that ultimately drive their success.
- The first pillar is the capacity for a user to create content directly on the particular platform. The second pillar is the real-time dissemination of information or ‘sharing’ of the user-generated content.
- The third pillar is the ability to interact with the content that was just shared, especially to reward users of said platform, which they do in the form of ‘likes’ and ‘comments.
- The fourth pillar is the establishment of a community or multiple niche-based communities within that platform.
- The fifth, and last, pillar is the potential to network and create relationships within these communities.
Understanding how the five pillars are crucial to contributing to a successful social media platform is necessary to understand why healthcare and medicine can play such a huge role in social media.
Let’s look at the stats: According to the Pew Research Center, 87% of all-American adults are connected to the internet in some way shape or form.
That’s over 284 million people!
Out of that group, it’s reported that 72% of users look to the internet for health information when the need arises.
Millions of Americans are accessing the internet on a daily basis for information on medicine, healthcare, and diagnostics.
PwC Health Research Institute surveyed 1060 random US adults and found that almost half of the surveyed consumers reported that information found on social media would affect their decision to seek a second opinion, directly affect how they cope with a chronic condition or change their approach to diet and exercise.
As a physician, I see a significant amount of benefit from tapping into this potential group of users and being able to educate them on a mass scale – but the information needs to be correct.
So, how does this relate to you?
And why should you participate in the medical community within social media?
Here are some of my top reasons, for starters:
- To be informed, rapidly. There are tons of information being shared by reputable and highly educated individuals on a daily basis. Often, this information is up to date, free, and relevant to a health issue or concern that you can be experiencing.
- The medical community is engaging with the information presented. This means that all sides of an issue are represented through the constant engagement and ability to challenge the information that is posted. I personally challenge other medical viewpoints in forms of comments or messages which allows for a discussion and better understanding of the topic at hand.
- YOU can be part of the conversation! Interacting on posts made by health professionals will put you directly into the conversation, usually getting all your concerns answered by the leading minds of the area in question.
- The potential to build new relationships and create a vast network. By interacting with health-related content online, you establish connections with the people posting. This can lead to long term engagements that can benefit you in the future. I’ve personally made several friends through my interactions on social media and continue to give advice to those who message me. For example, students that are currently in high school and college seek my advice on how to make them more competitive for medical school.
But this is only the first half of the picture.
When YOU want to, YOU can get directly involved in the medical social landscape.
But what about when you’re ready to engage with someone who is more established?
How can you directly benefit from a doctor, such as myself, who posts and interacts on social media with the aim of educating their followers?
The most important answer is ultimately the ability to crowdsource medicine.
Crowdsourcing is a model that allows groups, individuals, or organizations to obtain goods and services (including ideas) from a large and often rapidly-evolving group of online users.
If we apply this model to medicine, we find a system that enables doctors and other health professionals from anywhere in the world to exchange ideas and learn from one another.
Through posting real-life cases, research, or even personal experiences, medical crowdsourcing allows health care workers to harness the medical knowledge of the global community to improve patient outcomes and better educate readers and viewers like yourself.
Back in medical school, the number one educational tool that helped me to learn and remember different diseases and treatments were example medical cases.
These cases made me, and my team critically think through a problem, create a plan of care, and diagnose or ‘solve’ the issue at hand.
This teaching modality demonstrates a classic tenet of medicine – that doctors have always needed to work together and learn from one another to provide the best patient care possible.
From my experience, a majority of cases fall within a ‘Grey area’ where symptoms and disease presentations aren’t always aligned to the perfect textbook standards.
It’s for these cases that the advice from colleagues can significantly enhance patient outcomes, while also giving fresh perspectives on the different treatment styles.
By giving health professionals the means to access the wisdom of their peers all over the world, medical crowdsourcing is educating professionals, patients, and all those who wish to learn about their health or the health of others.
But as with all things, there comes some bad with the good.
Crowdsourced information is excellent when the underlying data is accurate, but what about cases when it’s not?
The most significant risk that I see is the rapid spread of false information.
As we’ve witnessed in the example of the Anti-VAX movement with celebrities like Jenny McCarthy, misinformation and the fabrication of research and data can travel through social media and, in the worst-case scenario, start a campaign that puts people at risk for disease.
This puts the onus on ethical and well-researched medical professionals to raise their voice to disseminate correct information throughout the public and actively educate others on their health and the dangers of misinformation.
Without a doubt, social media has changed the landscape of how people access information on issues surrounding public and private health.
It’s given patients a real-time way to voice concerns, as well as give practitioners a novel approach to discuss, learn, and solve cases.
The next time you see your favorite social media doctor post; take the time to interact and learn from their message.
You might start a conversation that could cure someone’s life, or at the very least, make someone’s day.