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How has the meteoric rise of social media over the past five years impacted healthcare, both positively and negatively?

Socialmedia-Healthcare-TextThese days, it seems like everyone from Justin Bieber, to Cirque du Soleil, to the president of the United States is using social media in some way, for good or for ill. In fact, according to SocialMediaToday, there were 2.8 billion active social media users worldwide as of January 2017. Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter are the most popular platforms. So how has the dramatic rise of social media over the past five years impacted healthcare, both positively and negatively? Are providers, medical distributors, surgical suppliers and more embracing social media?

The good

Social media seems to have affected the healthcare sector just as much as any other business sector. In fact, several of the largest healthcare companies in the U.S. regularly use social media, including UnitedHealth Group, CVS, and AmerisourceBergen.

Though rarely used for diagnostic purposes, these platforms do allow doctors to more easily share and compare information, trends, results, and more. Responsible use of social media can improve physician-patient interactions and provide assistance with appointments and referrals. If they think outside the box, doctors can help motivate patients to live a healthier lifestyle. Platforms such as Twitter and YouTube are helpful in providing accurate information—how many patients might be interested in information regarding vaccines or other hotly debated topics?

Organizations from hospitals to distributors can use social media to communicate in time of crisis on topics like operational and ER status and product availability. For example, medical specialties distributors could use social media platforms to keep customers updated on a potential product shortage, or the availability of specific supplies important to our customers such as surgical sutures and other wound care products.

For physicians only

There are several physician-only sites out there, such as Sermo and Doc2Doc, which allow physicians to create threads to discuss specific topics, and Doximity, which is a national database of demographic and contact information for all U.S. physicians.

While physicians should be cautious of the reliability of shared information (Wikipedia is sometimes used as a reference tool on sites such as these), there are credible peer-reviewed online sites where the information is subject to strict quality control, such as Medpedia, launched by Harvard, Stanford, University of Michigan, and UC Berkley.

The potential positive impacts for physicians and others in the industry are hard to ignore. Social media provides a platform to share information and discuss policy with colleagues, engage with the general public in positive ways, and educate and interact with patients and caregivers.

The bad

One must always consider the potential downside to engaging a large audience in a virtual environment. Patients may form preconceived notions and ideas based on what they read online, and over-information could reduce the trust between patient and doctor. Sensationalistic “news” can negatively impact patients (one word: vaccinations), and social media tends to stress anecdotal information rather than evidence-based reports. Strict control over what information your facility puts out, when it’s released, and how it’s used is why many organizations choose to employ a social media manager.

Get the lawyers involved

You will also need to consider privacy and liability concerns in relation to social media. Of course, attention to HIPAA, confidentiality, and privacy concerns is a must. There are potential legal ramifications of an early news release; for example, if a distributor signs a new manufacturer contract and one party releases the news before the other party gives the nod. The list of potential consequences of social media use gone wrong could go on and on.

The ugly

There are many “ugly” sides to social media, and those are often the stories that you hear. A simple Google search offers a plethora of examples. Sometimes these situations just affect the patients, but not always. For example, a nursing home landed in hot water when one of its employees published the name and photo of a resident with Alzheimer's disease on their Instagram page. The facility and the employee faced potential legal issues because the resident was incapable of granting permission.

To avoid the ugly, it’s highly advisable that you employ a trained social media manager and a legal consultant.

Moving ahead with social media & healthcare

The power of social media is undeniable. In 2017, the majority of Americans get their news via social media. A recent survey of over 1,000 U.S. adults by PricewaterhouseCoopers on healthcare and social media showed that 42% of consumers have used social media to access health-related consumer reviews; 20% have joined a health forum or community; and more than 70% received assistance with referrals and appointment scheduling. If you or your organization have not embraced social media, you’re behind the times.

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