The relationship between the healthcare industry and social media has historically been a complicated one – while it gave patients and practitioners a new way to connect, it also gave rise to industry-specific issues, such as privacy breaches and patient confidentiality.
Yet social media for healthcare has evolved into a very effective tool for information, advice and reviews on a range of healthcare services, conditions and physicians. So while there are certainly still challenges, social networks have enabled patients to have a much broader means of support and information from healthcare entities and other consumers; much more than in the days before Facebook and other social networking sites.
Now, with the rapid rise of data that social media networks are constantly providing, medical marketing is taking the interests and needs of consumers one step further. Social media is an ideal tool to research the patient experience, gaining insight into any questions or concerns. A medical practice could learn that patients require faster response times when requesting an appointment online, or realize that they need to provide greater patient outreach. The data available can also be mined for research, like a recent example of researchers in California who examined patient text messages and social medial to provide an insight into the behavioral needs of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. By considering social data, researchers can develop more personalized and effective treatment plans.
PatientsLikeMe, an online community founded in 2004, is further driving the connection between medical researchers and patients, creating the world’s first open-participation research platform for the development of patient-centered health outcome measures. The platform allows patients to share data through questionnaires and at-home diagnostic data to track the progression of their illness. This data provides a collaborative approach between patient and researchers to develop health outcomes that are centered on patient needs and demonstrated successes.
The major challenge that the healthcare industry must overcome in its use of social media is patient privacy. There are strict obligations surrounding unauthorized disclosures on social media and organizations must enforce detailed social-networking policies to guard against HIPAA violations.
Sharing a patient’s medical condition via social media can have severe negative consequences. If a patient’s employer has access to comments regarding the diagnosis of cancer, it could affect the patient’s working conditions (based on the employer’s perception of their abilities following the diagnosis) and impact their ability to get insurance, or their insurance premiums.
One of the most difficult aspects of social networking in healthcare is that many privacy breaches can actually come from patients themselves. Something as simple as posting a status update about their health condition on a public site could be visible to a patient’s employer. Similarly, if a physician responds to a patient inquiry about the results of a diagnostic test on a site like Twitter, the data would be visible to at least all of the practice’s Twitter followers.
A more recent challenge that is coming to light is patient comments (both negative and positive) that consumers are increasingly posting on health forums and social sites. When a patient shares a positive comment, in some instances, it may be considered a testimonial if it includes a recommendation. Practitioners should take steps to remove testimonials on any social sites that they control. In the case of negative comments, such as a patient review about the care they received, there are two possible options – either simply ignore the comment, or try and have the comment removed. The latter option may not be easy if the social site is not within your control, or where a patient has commented anonymously. However, whatever the circumstances, practitioners should avoid commenting online or soliciting others to counteract the negative comment. In some instances, it may be helpful to seek legal advice or assistance.
It’s vital to be aware of the positives and negatives of the social media landscape as it relates to the healthcare industry. Being mindful of the difficulties, and navigating around the rules and regulations, will fully enable the power of social sharing to be realized in future patient-centered health treatment.