Thursday, February 24, 2011

The new pandemic: Will viral social media lead a health care revolution?

As we watch events unfold around the world with social media orchestrated revolution you can see the power that this new media can play in change.

First in Egypt, and now in Libya, millions of people are hearing about democracy and demanding change via smart phones and iPads over the internet.

What started as merely a march toppled a world leader.

So can social media create these same kind of changes in health care?

Today the ability to stay connected almost anywhere in the world has made being "off the grid" almost impossible. Which means that patients and health care providers are almost always able to communicate.

And, effective communication is the key to any health care message.

For years the internet has provided and almost encyclopedic reference for any illness, ailment, treatment, or medication. It is a rare patient that comes into my office that hasn't Googled their problem first.

Our office has free WiFi for patients, so even in the exam room patients can look up our recommendations and interact about conflicting discussions on the internet.

With the advent of online images, patients often compare tumors and rashes with jpegs they find on Flickr. This is their first opinion.

I am their second.

But what we see now going in the world is much deeper. And it offers the opportunity for a revolution in how we interact and disseminate health care information.

And ultimately care for patients.

Though smart phones and iPads, with WiFi and 3G, people can now be connected virtually anywhere in the world. It has made being "off the grid" a dream weekend away for many techno-nerds.

This technology is fascinating in its ability to behave almost like a living creature.

The word "viral" has always been used to describe how messages and content can spread so quickly around the globe. We've all seen those videos that reach a million or so downloads days after they are posted.

Viruses though by nature are not truly "living and breathing." They are merely protein products that rely on transmission from one host to another.

Certainly they can morph and evolve, becoming resistant to treatments and more easily spread, but they never replicate alone and they eventually die with their host.

I would argue that our social media revolution is more than viral. It is becoming living and breathing.

It is becoming alive.

With 500 million or so folks on Facebook, new groups and pages are made every second.

Instantaneous social networks can be created on autism, HIV, depression, and on and on.

Testimonials, treatments, and even tears can be shed together over a continuous interactive stream of discussion.

And it takes on a life of its own.

Never was this more clear than in Egypt. Once the message commenced and the social debate was started, the government shut down the internet, wireless phones, cable television, and even the power to some satellite relay stations.

Yet the revolution continued. It was spread via rumor and from person to person.

Even to people who never participated in Facebook, Twitter, or any internet discussion.

So will we see this in health care communications? I think we will. Is it too far fetched to believe that patients will move beyond just Googling a treatment suggestion in an exam room, to rather posting the idea on Facebook and immediately being able to discuss the concept with friends and family for feedback and suggestions?

Physicians already post diagnostic dilemmas sans personal information on the internet for assistance. So as treatments and plans are discussed will the confluence of information become the new "standard of care" against which we are all measured.

That would mean that the "standard" will be constantly evolving and changing as millions of patients and physicians provide continuous feedback and input.

And will this impact spread beyond the electronic world to effect patients and physicians who have steadfastly refused to participate in social media?

There are certainly dangers involved here. Aside from the privacy concerns, it is clear that without physicians and other health care providers being involved in the process that this standard could evolve into bad medicine and harm for patients.

Imagine if you will that a viral video on antiperspirants causing Alzheimer's creates a national outrage against personal hygiene, Congressional inquiry, and a ban on your favorite roll-on.

Funny? Just Google "phthalates" and "small penis." I think you can see how science and medicine can be influenced by social media. Sometimes with junk science.

So, the take home message here? Social media communication is here, and it will continue to grow and influence how we treat and take care of patients.

It will become alive and self perpetuating regardless if you participate or not.

It's essential that all the parties embrace and participate in the technology. We should welcome patients to examine their care on the internet, and we should encourage physicians to become involved in internet based discussions, groups, blogs, Facebook, and Twitter.

There is an evolution in the doctor-patient relationship and it will revolve around social media interactions.

And it's not a bad thing.

I guess if you are reading this blog you are already participating in social media to some extent. So will these words become viral?

Self interestingly I hope so.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Dallas, Texas

No comments:

Post a Comment