Social networking helpful for patients, but may need to be vetted

Many social media sites exist, but healthcare professionals may not know that social media also exists in their realm. It ranges from online medical advice to actual patient-physician appointments.

Social media defined as "a conversation supported by online tools," is transforming the way people communicate across the globe. Basically, social media consists of online applications that allow users to generate content, connect with others, and engage in conversation. Many social media sites exist, but healthcare professionals may not know that social media also exists in their realm. It ranges from online medical advice to actual patient-physician appointments. It includes educational banks, public health information dissemination, and online data-platform sharing. Patients use healthcare social media for peer support and empowerment through patient-centered websites.

Web 2.0 is a philosophy associated with online applications that facilitates interactive information sharing, collaboration, while being user-centered. Web 2.0 was adopted by healthcare participants to utilize the core concepts of openness, social networking, participation, collaboration, and apomediation. Apomediation refers to cutting out any middlemen or "gatekeepers" when accessing Internet information and going directly to the information, which is vetted by experts.

"One major concern of healthcare professionals regarding the use of social media in healthcare is that, by nature, it is open and the information is not ‘controllable,’” according to Jeff Cain, EdD, MS, director of education technology at the University of Kentucky College of Pharmacy, Lexington, Ky., who spoke on this topic at the 22nd annual meeting of the Academy of Managed Care Pharmacy in San Diego.

"Many healthcare professionals also use micro-blogging applications such as Twitter to disseminate and receive health-related information and research.  By following other healthcare Twitterers, one can quickly be introduced to new publications, stories, and online articles of interest that she or he may not have discovered without extensive searching," said Dr Cain.

Examples of healthcare community sharing sites are PatientsLikeMe, HelloHealth, and Google Health. PatientsLikeMe is a site for patients with similar disease states. Currently there are more than 60,000 users for 19 conditions. Patients communicate about treatments, side effects, and other topics. Patient information is de-identified and aggregated, and can be purchased by pharmaceutical companies and health plans, to be used for research and marketing purposes.

“From the patient perspective, social media has permitted the unprecedented ability for users to socially connect with others who suffer from the same affliction or disease state,” according to Dr Cain.  “For those with rare diseases, social networking capabilities of some of the patient community sites allow patients to locate, communicate with, encourage, and support others with similar problems.”