POINT: Social Media Helps Patients Make Better Health Decisions

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By Jim Mittler, PhD (@jim_mittler)

In the information age, familiarity with medical knowledge, and being your own health care advocate is increasingly the norm. Empowered patients who understand their condition, are educated about treatment options, and are versed in medical terminology have more productive discussions with doctors and nurses and reduce the stress that often accompanies illness. Even those patients who arent ill but seeking to achieve optimal health are best served by being a strong advocate for their own health care.

Social media is leading this state of empowerment by increasing access to other patients, medical professionals, hospitals, and government agencies. According to a study by research company TNS, people who use a mobile device spend an average of 3.1 hours per week on social networks. While most people likely dont start searching for health information until they suspect something is wrong or have a diagnosis, social media can support better decisions and influence treatment.

Patient bloggers who share their experiences can help people understand their disease and what treatment options might be most effective, as well as alternative therapies that have been successful. These patients share information about daily challenges of living with a disease and provide coping strategies that work for them. This enables newly diagnosed individuals to benefit from the bloggers knowledge, and perhaps more importantly, allows the newly diagnosed individual to develop a personal network that can provide long-lasting support.

Social games also enable people to interact with others and raise their awareness about health-related issues. Obesity in children is a rising concern, but getting kids to understand how to make better food choices is often difficult. Web-based games such as Kaiser Permanentes “The Incredible Adventures of the Amazing Food Detective teaches children about healthy eating through a series of activities that helps them make smart food choices. Then, the game shuts itself off after 20 minutes to remind youngsters to get active.

Some physicians have also hopped on the social media bandwagon and are using the social networks not to necessarily dispense diagnostic information but to educate patients on healthy lifestyle alternatives, trends in medicine and current research findings, risks and warnings, and to answer questions that help guide people as to when to seek medical care. According to a new Manhattan Research survey online physicians reported spending eight hours online for professional purposes each week in 2010.

Social media enthusiasts such as Jeff Benabio, MD (@dermdoc), Mehmet Oz (@DrOz), Howard Luks (@hjluks) and Sara Stein, MD (@sarasteinmd) have created an engaging presence on both Twitter and Facebook, helping individuals broaden their knowledge for informed decision-making. Physicians are also using social media for peer-to-peer engagement and it is influencing how they practice medicine. Dr. Kevin Pho blogs about the day-to-day realities of health care and has created a forum where patients, malpractice lawyers, progressives, conservatives, and others can interact and gain exposure to differing perspectives. With more doctors interacting online, patients today have unprecedented access to medical expertise.

Government agencies and advocacy groups are also using social networks to update consumers on relevant health news and deliver health-awareness messages, reminders, and alerts to subscribers. For example, the American Cancer Society launched a social networking site for its Relay For Life efforts to communicate with participants who walk, donate, or volunteer. Beyond raising awareness, this has fostered a cohesive community where people can ask questions, learn more, and bond together.

By tapping into the social networks, patients can discover how to manage disease, navigate health care systems, provide support to others, and ensure they ask the right questions when its their turn in the doctors office. Good decisions require awareness, which is why social media is contributing to more savvy health care consumers.




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