Social Media’s Challenge to Traditional Health Care

Patients, providers, researchers, and advocates forge online connections

Social media on the Internet are empowering, engaging, and educating health care consumers and providers, according to a new report, The Wisdom of Patients: Health Care Meets Online Social Media, published by the California HealthCare Foundation (CHCF). “Innovative collaborations online among groups of patients, medical professionals, and other health care players are challenging the notion that health care happens only between a single patient and doctor in an exam room,” said report author Jane Sarasohn-Kahn, M.A., M.H.S.A., a health economist, management consultant, and health blogger. “This movement is known as Health 2.0.”

The Emerging Role of the Internet in Health Care

“The Internet plays a central role in finding health information,” said Veenu Aulakh, M.P.H., CHCF senior program officer. “More consumers now go online for health information and support than consult their physicians. The Web is also becoming a platform for convening people with shared concerns and creating health information that is more relevant to consumers. CHCF is exploring the use of social media as a tool to help people manage chronic conditions.” Social media include online communities, blogs, videos, wikis, and other formats for sharing information.

The role of the Web has evolved from the information-retrieval of “Web 1.0” to “Web 2.0,” which allows people who are not necessarily technologically savvy to generate content. At the same time, social networks ranging from MySpace to specific disease-oriented sites are blossoming. According to the report, social networks in health are proliferating so rapidly that new services are already under development to help health consumers navigate through them.

“Consumers are well ahead of other health stakeholders in adopting social media in health,” said Sarasohn-Kahn. “People with chronic conditions are sharing their stories with each other, not just for emotional support, but for the clinical knowledge they gain in an online community. Doctors are meeting online to share quandaries about challenging cases and solutions that work. And researchers are coming together with patients to learn about side effects in real-time to improve therapeutic regimens.”

Examples of Health 2.0 Sites

Among the Health 2.0 sites discussed in the CHCF report is DiabetesMine, a blog started by a journalist with adult-onset Type 1 diabetes. Her target audience is people with diabetes, caregivers, providers, payers, and the health care industry. Another site is PatientsLikeMe, a social health network and online forum. The target audience is patients with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, or HIV/AIDS, as well as related caregivers, providers, and researchers. People share personal data on prescription drug histories, side effects, and what works in managing their conditions. Its patient-reported dataset has been presented at scientific meetings and used in peer-reviewed research. Another site, WEGO Health, is a social health network and wiki. The target audience is “prosumers” (expert consumers) who want to dig deeper and with more specificity into health topics. For example, someone could search for videos about diet and lifestyle changes among African Americans with Type 2 diabetes.

In addition to specialized sites, more than 500 groups meet on Facebook to discuss diabetes; more than 2,000 chemotherapy-related photos are posted on Flickr; and some 36,000 YouTube pages are devoted to some aspect of surgery. And that is just a sample of the kind of interactive media related to health that exist for patients online.

Can the Sites Be Trusted?

The CHCF report examines the benefits and concerns regarding Health 2.0. While privacy concerns may prevent potential users from getting involved, the report notes that people in search of health information and support are often willing to trade off aspects of their privacy in exchange for valuable services, as long as the sites clearly state how personal health information is used. The report points out criticisms that content provided by non-expert individuals could lead to adverse effects or even death, while noting that social media proponents contend that misinformation doesn’t remain posted for long, and that collective wisdom is, by its nature, self-correcting.

Are Social Media Sustainable and What Comes Next?

The report describes various Health 2.0 business models (such as data aggregation and sharing; information arbitrage; advertising; sponsorship; and integration into health care delivery systems) that offer the potential to make sites sustainable.

According to the report, the growing demand for transparency will drive the evolution of social media in health. Sarasohn-Kahn writes that “shining a light on the data by which payers and consumers make purchasing decisions can help drive more rational, cost-effective choices.” She offers as examples new sites the combine consumer reviews, peer reviews, and empirical data on a doctor’s quality. Another example is a new health plan model that claims to be the health equivalent of Travelocity. “Consumer-generated content in health has found a receptive audience in Web 2.0,” said Sarasohn-Kahn. “Patient opinion leaders have emerged in many disease areas. They will become a key influence on other consumers and, increasingly, the organizations who serve them.”

Additional Social Media and Health Resources

The report includes brief portraits of social media health pioneers. It also provides an extensive list of resources on Health 2.0, health social networks, health wikis, patient blogs, health podcasts, and health video-sharing sites.

The report is available online through the link below.

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About the California Health Care Foundation

The California Health Care Foundation is dedicated to advancing meaningful, measurable improvements in the way the health care delivery system provides care to the people of California, particularly those with low incomes and those whose needs are not well served by the status quo. We work to ensure that people have access to the care they need, when they need it, at a price they can afford.