Think about how many find their, say, dentist, dermatologist, or even physiotherapist—probably word of mouth via a friend or family. Of course, nowadays word of mouth is less from the mouth and more from a tweet or Facebook status update.

In a post on Merge, Adam Landrum discusses a PwC study entitled “Social Media ‘Likes’ Healthcare,” which shows that social media influences patients’ decisions about selecting health providers. Patients are increasingly using information from social media to assist them in making healthcare choices; for instance, 41% of those surveyed said social media sites would influence their choice of a specific physician, hospital, or medical facility.

Likelihood of information found on social media affecting decisions

We know patients rely on social media to make decisions about what they buy, who they see, and what medicines and supplements they take. But what about health advice? Can users actually glean meaningful health information from social media beyond basic consumer recommendations? Let’s discuss how social media is a valuable health resource for patients.

In the same PwC study, which polled 1,040 US adults, researchers found that about 33% of consumers use social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, to obtain health information and to track and share symptoms. Additionally, more than 80% of respondents ages 18 to 24 and 45% of respondents ages 45 to 64 said they are likely to share health information through social media sites. Furthermore, more than 40% said health information on social media sites would affect how they manage a chronic condition or approach diet and exercise routines; and 34% said social media websites would affect their decision to take certain medications.

These are potential patients sharing their own health information with their social friends and family—simple conversations unfolding online that provide patients with health information they may not otherwise find. More importantly, patients are receiving information via social media that actually influences their behavior. 

Likelihood of sharing positive and negative experiences on social media

In a post on KevinMD, Jackie Fox also believes social media—specifically Twitter—is a valuable health resource for patients. Here are four reasons why:

  • Patients can have real-time conversations with others who’ve experienced the same conditions, symptoms, or situations. These people can come from all over the world and offer astonishingly diverse insights. There’s knowledge and comfort in this.
  • There are incredible doctors and nurses tweeting Q&A, sharing best practices, and providing links to resources. While no medical professional will give health advice specific to an individual, they can provide a slew of general insight. Plus, some health professionals live tweet surgeries, which serves as a pretty cool resource for those considering the same surgery.
  • Tweetchats, or scheduled discussions that unfold via a hashtag (like #solvept), bring professionals and patients alike together in educated conversations. Fox gives this example: “I often take part in the #bcsm (breast cancer social media) tweetchat...The group has tackled parenting while under treatment, how to tell people at work, and how to cope with the fear of recurrence.”
  • Twitter is instant, so it’s easy to discover breaking news there. Follow health professionals and health news sources on Twitter, and you’ll always be in the know on that latest in health and medicine.

But it isn’t just Facebook and Twitter that are valuable health resources. The original social media, discussion boards, are also beneficial. Erin Meyer in an article for the Chicago Tribune details the story of Deb McGarry, who, just minutes after delivering her grandmother’s eulogy, had the biggest health scare of her life. The 39-year-old married mother of two suffered a heart attack as a result of spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD), a rare and often-fatal disease primarily affecting otherwise healthy young women. Although she survived the attack, McGarry left the hospital in January of 2011 feeling isolated and confused. As of yet, doctors can’t even say with certainty what causes SCAD, whether it’s likely to recur, or if can be passed genetically. For many, Meyer writes, not knowing such crucial details can be as debilitating as the physical symptoms.

Enter social media. Desperate for information and advice, Deb went online and discovered a thriving online community created by WomenHeart, the National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease. There, she learned many details about her condition and was able to relate to others. "With rare diseases, you can't walk into your doctor's office and find the support and information you need," said McGarry."...It's absolutely amazing to be able to get on your computer and find people who are experiencing the same thing as you."
In this case, social media not only served as a valuable health resource; it also spurred change. Doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota launched the first large-scale SCAD research project as a result of the awareness the SCAD survivors online community generated.

And the Mayo Clinic is just one example. Because more and more patients use social media to discuss their health, many companies, universities, and hospitals are using it, too, in the hopes of improving the health and medical fields. Here are a few examples cited in the article:

A 2011 study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that one in five Americans uses the Internet to find people with similar health concerns. However, “the real magic happens when someone with a great idea is able to connect with one of these patient groups who stand ready and willing to help," said Susannah Fox, the project’s associate director.

While social media is certainly a valuable resource, it’s important patients use it as just one resource, not the one and only. Along with knowledge, comfort, and community, social is full of scams so be sure to encourage your patients to use what they find online as a platform for further research and conversation. Your clinic is the perfect place for a post-internet discussion.

By providing your patients with a face-to-face, expert, and personal forum, you can be more than their doctor—you can be a pillar of wisdom, a myth-debunker, and a trusted confidant. And that brings us right back to the beginning of this conversation: word of mouth on social. Patients will not only recommend you as a therapist, but as a thought leader and expert in the community.

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