The Impact of Social Media in Healthcare

What’s the first thing you do when you get sick? For many people, a cursory search through various online resources is the initial step in gathering information toward obtaining a diagnosis.  The internet places an infinite number of health-related resources at our fingertips, many of which are consumed through social media.

Presently, 74% of US internet users participate in social media, and of those users, 80% are searching for health information. The rapid adoption and prevalence of social media among internet users has allowed it to become an innovative and disruptive force within the healthcare field, potentially influencing the opinions and interactions of both patients and providers.

Before diving in to discuss the impact of social media in healthcare, let’s first define the term “social media.”  This article defines social media as follows:

“The term generally refers to Internet-based tools that allow individuals and communities to gather and communicate; to share information, ideas, personal messages, images, and other content; and, in some cases, to collaborate with other users in real time.”

This IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics report [PDF], Engaging Patients through Social Media, further describes social media as encompassing a wide variety of online, interactive platforms that host user-generated content.  These can be blogs (like this one!), social/professional networking sites, virtual communities, wikis, or video-/image- sharing sites.

Impact on Patients

For patients, social media can be a valuable source of information or a dangerous source of misinformation. This article in the Health Informatics Journal describes a systematic review of how both video and text-based social media are used and perceived by patients.  The authors found that social media can support patient empowerment, engagement, and build communities, but since little is known about the quality of information circulating throughout social media, there’s always a risk of it being incorrect or misleading.

Wired magazine recently provided a specific example of social media’s impact on healthcare through “patient influencers.” The article describes how many of those diagnosed with a chronic disease have taken to social media to provide insights and give a voice to their condition. However, while social media provides patient influencers and patients with a virtual community to share their concerns and experiences, there’s no oversight, and no guards against potential conflicts of interest.

Impact on Providers

Social media can also serve as a useful tool for providers, not only for professional networking and information sharing, but for patient education as well. An exploratory survey of 17 physicians (76% of whom were bloggers) identified the benefits of social media involvement,  including career advancement and staying up-to-date on the latest literature. Barriers included lack of institutional support, employer backlash, unfamiliarity with technology, time requirements, and the fear of saying something wrong.

Some providers see social media as a source of low-cost health information for themselves and an opportunity for community outreach. In another survey involving 485 physicians, 24% reported using social media at least once a day to look for medical information and 60% said social media enhances the quality of care they provide.

On the other hand, the use of social media does not come without risks for providers. Healthcare providers are responsible for protecting the privacy of patient information and HIPAA regulations govern patient-provider electronic communications.  Additionally, providers must consider legal and ethical issues associated with using social media for patient care purposes.

Impact on Patient-Provider Interactions

Social media can also affect patient-provider relationships by facilitating communication outside of the traditional office setting. One study focusing on adolescents with psychiatric illnesses indicated that social media allows for a less anxiety-provoking mode of communication (than face-to-face), constant access to providers, and more consistent monitoring. Furthermore, patients are using social media sites like Yelp to find and rate physicians and post detailed accounts of their interactions.

As social media plays a larger role in healthcare, how will patients, providers, and the overall healthcare industry adapt? Stay tuned!

Alexa Ortiz

Alexa Ortiz

Health IT Scientist at RTI International
Alexa Ortiz graduated from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in 2009 with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing. Before receiving her graduate degree she was a practicing nurse for five years and has clinical experience in the field of both Cardiology and Neurology. In 2014 she received a Master of Science in Nursing specializing in nursing informatics from Duke University. Presently, she works as a Health IT Scientist at RTI International in the Center for Digital Health and Clinical Informatics. Despite no longer working in a clinical setting, she continues to maintain an active nurse license in the state of North Carolina. Her primary areas of research at RTI International focus on the clinical implementation of health information technology and the evaluation of consumer wearable devices.
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Catherine Gupta

Catherine Gupta

Catherine Gupta graduated in 2011 from the University at Buffalo with a Bachelor of Science in Pharmaceutical Sciences. In 2015, she received her PhD from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Eshelman School of Pharmacy. Presently, Dr. Gupta is working at RTI International as a health communication research scientist. Her research focuses on patient-provider communication, direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription medications, and the development and evaluation of decisions aids for HIV prevention and management and informed consent.
Catherine Gupta

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About Alexa Ortiz and Catherine Gupta

Alexa Ortiz graduated from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in 2009 with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing. Before receiving her graduate degree she was a practicing nurse for five years and has clinical experience in the field of both Cardiology and Neurology. In 2014 she received a Master of Science in Nursing specializing in nursing informatics from Duke University. Presently, she works as a Health IT Scientist at RTI International in the Center for Digital Health and Clinical Informatics. Despite no longer working in a clinical setting, she continues to maintain an active nurse license in the state of North Carolina. Her primary areas of research at RTI International focus on the clinical implementation of health information technology and the evaluation of consumer wearable devices.