Social media also affords physicians the opportunity to be a force in public health policies. “There is an active group of physician and medical student social media users in the blogosphere and on Twitter who use their social media presence for activism, and this presence is intimately tied to how they see themselves as a medical professional,” Dr. Farnan says. “They blog and tweet about medical education issues and other public topics such as access to care and care disparity.”
Michelle Vangel, director of insight services with Cision, a Chicago-based public relations company specializing in social media communications, praises the power of social media for raising awareness of public health issues.
“In terms of public health, social media is valuable to better understand how health-related news resonates with the public,” Vangel says. “Two salient examples of major health crises reactions tracked on social media were the Ebola outbreak in Africa and the measles outbreak at Disneyland in California. At times, there was near hysteria over Ebola and vaccine debates, with misinformation spreading quickly. However, many hospitals and physicians tried to get ahead of the hysteria by providing concise, accurate information on different social media platforms, with Facebook often a popular channel to post information.”
Social media sites can also help by making emotional support available at disease-specific sites. These communities address the patient experience of the disease that goes beyond purely medical disease information. Vangel points to several online communities that “host pivotal conversations for patients,” she says. “There are Facebook community pages dedicated to a host of conditions, including diabetes, hypertension, and cystic fibrosis, where patients discuss the challenges of medication compliance, side effects, and even dissatisfaction with healthcare professionals. BabyCenter.com provides message boards about a wide array of topics for people trying to conceive, pregnant women with health conditions, and parents of babies with health issues. CancerForums.net and the health and wellness boards at DelphiForums.com provide support to specific disease populations.”
Vangel encourages physicians to monitor online patient-support sites to better understand the difficulties patients experience while under treatment. These sites can also help physicians recognize and address the gaps in patient understanding about various diseases and explore programs geared toward the populations suffering from a wide range of conditions. TH
Maybelle Cowan-Lincoln is a freelance writer in New Jersey.
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