Can Women Trust Online Medical Care?
Social media isn’t just for sharing cat videos and pictures of puppies.
According to a 2012 report from PwC’s Health Research Institute, one-third of consumers are using Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sights to “seek medical information, discuss symptoms and express their opinions about doctors, drugs and health insurers….”
In the survey, 45 percent of respondents said whatever they found on social media would affect their decision on whether to get a second opinion, and 34 percent said it would affect their decision about taking a particular medication.
It was bound to happen. We women love to ask our friends what they think of a particular doctor or medical care center. We talk about the medical challenges we go through, and how medications affect us. We’re built for sharing, so why not take that sharing onto social media platforms?
The question is: Is this a good or a bad thing? After all, we know that much of the information we find on social media or the Internet is inaccurate. That may not be a problem when we’re talking about where to go for vacation or what restaurants serve the best pasta, but when we’re talking about our health, the wrong information could be very damaging, indeed.
Three Ways Women Use the Internet and Social Media in Healthcare
Currently, there are three key ways that we use social media and the Internet for healthcare related issues:
- To find medical information
- To gain support from others
- To communicate with healthcare providers
Let’s look at each of the pros and cons of each of these.
- To Find Medical Information
This is the most dangerous of the three, simply because of the risk of getting the wrong information and acting on it in a way that negatively affects our health.
In a 2012 study, researchers looked at the accuracy of information on the Internet about sleep safety in infants. They found that less than half of the 1300 websites reviewed provided accurate information. Over a quarter (28.1%) provided inaccurate information, and 28.4% were not relevant. Even educational websites had only 50.2% accurate medical information. Blogs and other individual websites had very low accuracy ratings, from 25.7% to 30.3%.
A 2014 study on Wikipedia, which has become the most popular general reference site on the Internet, reported that nine out of 10 Wikipedia articles contained errors about major conditions like heart disease, lung cancer, major depressive disorder, arthritis, and more. A 2008 study found that though nearly two-thirds of participants thought the Internet sites they reviewed were accurate, over half of the sites reviewed were not. A high percentage of the participants walked away with significant misconceptions about the health topic they were researching.
“Patients in the United States commonly use the Internet to acquire health information,” the researchers wrote. “While a significant amount of health-related information is available on the Internet, the accuracy of this information is highly variable.”
It’s not just the Internet. We’re finding inaccurate information through our social media sites, too. In 2010, for example, researchers reported that over a four-month period in 2009, hundreds of Twitter users posted inaccurate information on antibiotics—and those tweets were retweeted to millions of other users.
Facebook, though helpful in terms of sharing support among those dealing with similar health concerns, has also been found to be a format for sharing inaccurate information. A 2011 study found that out of the 15 largest Facebook communities dedicated to diabetes, one in four comments were promotional in nature—often for products that hadn’t been approved by the FDA. Researchers expressed concern because currently, there is no accountability or checks for authenticity, as far as who is posting the information.
“There are certainly public health benefits that can be garnered from these sites,” said study author William H. Shrank, M.D., “but patients and doctors need to know it is really the Wild West out there.”
The good news is that doctors and medical centers are catching on to the trend. More healthcare providers are on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms now, which gives patients a more direct line to accurate information. Patients can learn more about a doctor they may be considering working with, for example, receive updates on the latest studies, read about various health conditions, and even discover services, helpful blogs, and wait times on hospital and doctor’s websites and blogs.
- To gain support from others.
This may be the most beneficial way to use the Internet and social media as far as healthcare is concerned.
A 2011 survey by the PEW Research Center reported that 18 percent of Internet users had gone online to find others with similar health concerns, while one in four with chronic conditions like diabetes and cancer had done the same. Some with particularly rare diseases commented on long-distance connections that meant a lot to them in helping them to get through their challenges.
The same report indicated that users who have experienced a recent medical emergency, or who have gone through a big change in their health (weight loss or gain, pregnancy, quitting smoking), are also more likely to look for others in the same boat online. Caregivers, too, are likely to seek support to gain unique insights into their challenges.
Having a place where you can share your story with others who “get it” is a unique benefit to social media and online support groups. Online chat streams for those with cancer and other difficult diseases can provide patients with a priceless support group, helping them to feel less alone and even contributing to their ability to manage the difficulties of treatment.
A 2015 study, for example, found that breast cancer patients felt less anxious about their disease after participating in a Twitter social media support group. And in a 2013 review of 284 studies evaluating the use of social media (including blogs, content communities, social networking sites, etc) by patients or caregivers, researchers found that 72.9 percent of the studies reported positive conclusions regarding the use of social media.
Considering the gradual uptick in people turning to social media for support, doctors are getting involved, too. A 2012 survey found that one in four doctors was using social media daily to scan or explore medical information, while 14 percent were contributing new information. On a weekly basis, nearly half were contributing new information. That number is likely higher today.
According to Dr. Joyce Lee, M.D., speaking in Physician’s Weekly, “By integrating aspects of social media into the healthcare delivery system, physicians may be able to help patients with diabetes become increasingly involved in their care, leading to more informed and motivated patients,” she adds. “In turn, this could improve health outcomes.”
- To communicate with healthcare providers.
Though this facet of social media is still in the early stages, it holds promise for being another very positive tool for patients.
According to the PwC Health Research Institute survey mentioned at the beginning of this article, 72 percent of consumers would like assistance in scheduling doctor’s appointments through social media. That’s already happening. A 2014 study reported that though there was initial reluctance among health care practitioners in using social media for direct patient care, it’s slowly being accepted by clinicians and health care facilities.
Georgia Health Sciences University, for example, already provides patients with access to a platform called “WebView,” which allows them to reach their doctors online to ask questions or request prescription refills. Most doctors now provide online appointment scheduling, at the very least, while new programs like MDLive, Doctor on Demand, and Teladoc allow video medical consultations for basic conditions that don’t require in-person visits.
Called “telemedicine,” the idea is that patients can enjoy the convenience of staying home while paying much less than they would for a traditional appointment. A 2014 study reported that virtual visits for follow-up on chronic conditions took significantly less time than in-person visits, yet were just as satisfactory to both clinicians and patients. Over half of states require insurance companies to reimburse telehealth treatment, with more considering new laws.
The concern is that something will be missed in a virtual visit. That’s why so far, most doctors and healthcare organizations limit them to dealing with conditions like the flu, allergies, or sports injuries, or for follow-up appointments. More serious issues, like breathing problems, broken bones, blood in the stool, and the like are still conditions requiring an in-person visit.
The American Medical Association, for example, has stated that telemedicine can improve patient care, but that it must be used appropriately. They have adopted a policy that lays down safeguards and standards, to help protect both doctors and patients.
Doctors are also using social media to communicate further with patients after the initial appointment. They may engage a patient on social media to help them keep track of blood pressure or medications, or to share new information on how to manage their condition.
“Social media is a great way to support patients,” Dr. Kevin Campbell told Forbes. “Patients are already in cyberspace, and social media allows physicians to figure out what they are thinking, what they are doing, what we can do better to serve the patient’s needs.”
What’s certain is that the Internet and social media are here to stay, and they will continue to affect the way we receive health care.
Some questions remain. One of the most serious concerns patient privacy. If you take a picture of a wound and send it to your doctor, for instance, and he sends it to a colleague for a second opinion, is that a breach of privacy? What if a doctor seeks information about a patient on Google? The practice has been found to be helpful in some cases, such as when a patient is found via his online presence to be considering suicide, but when does such “research” cross the line? Simply communicating with a patient over a social media platform could potentially open up a doctor to a violation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).
Doctors are advised, for instance, to avoid “friending” patients on Facebook, since such a relationship could violate the patient/health care provider boundary. They are told, instead, to set up websites specifically designed for professional interaction with patients.
This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to potential issues with interactive technology and healthcare. The bottom line is: feel free to use these tools for your healthcare needs, but proceed cautiously. Double check online sources of information to be sure they are accurate. Limit virtual visits for only those conditions that are minor. And always keep your privacy in mind. Remember: Once something is posted online, it remains forever online, and can come back to bite you.
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