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The Rise of Social Media and Healthcare

This guest blog is by Brian Ahier as part of our themed content hosted the first week of each month, with October focusing on healthcare. Brian is a Health IT Evangelist at Mid-Columbia Media Center. He blogs at O’Reilly Radar, Government Health IT and Healthcare IT News. To learn more and connect with Brian Ahier, visit his blog

When thinking about social media and healthcare I see two main areas of focus: from the industry side, and from the consumer side. On the industry side there are government organizations, hospitals, physician groups and individual providers, the biotech industry, pharmaceutical companies and a host of others engaged in this space. On the consumer side we are primarily talking about patients. I will focus this post on patients, although there is some overlap between the two categories. Consumers are more and more both looking for health information online as well as networking with others using social media tools.

One of the most important research studies on the topic is from the Pew Research Center in June 2009 by Susannah Fox,”The Social life of Health Information.” This was then updated with “The Social Life of Health Information, 2011” with new data which reinforces the trends seen in the earlier report. Susannah concluded that the online conversation about health is being driven forward primarily by two forces: the availability of social tools; and the motivation, especially among people living with chronic conditions, to connect with each other.

In September Harris released the results of their poll “The Growing Influence and Use Of Health Care Information Obtained Online” which indicated the proportion of people who report that they “often” search the Internet for information about health topics has increased to 39 percent, up from 22 percent in 2009 and 32 percent in 2010. Correlating what we know about the use of social media, obviously many of these people also use social media tools to search for and discuss health information. Harris uses the derogatory term “cyberchondriacs” which I do not like at all, but the data in their study is revealing.

And the recent study published in the prestigious Annals of Internal Medicine “Variations in Structure and Content of Online Social Networks for Patients With Diabetes” identified a strong need to improve site guidelines as use of social media as a health care resource grows. “Online social networks may play an increasing role in health education as primary care physicians see increasing numbers of patients, limiting time for telephone consultations to answer questions related to chronic disease management, and as a web-savvy population ages and develops more chronic diseases,” the researchers said. But the when it comes to seeking health information online it is “buyer beware,” as the study shows that 13 percent of sites have no noticeable fact-checking or moderation of content. While this study was restricted to diabetes-related social media sites, it is likely that the trends would hold across other disease specific sites.

People are using social media more and more to seek reliable information and connect with their peers. There are sites like, which is a social networking community that enables people to share information that can improve the lives of patients diagnosed with life-changing diseases;, which is a comprehensive health and medical information site offering online tools aimed at helping individuals take control of their health and well being; and, that provides support, information, and community to anyone affected by cancer and related disorders. And these are just the tip of the iceberg. As patients increasingly become more involved in their own healthcare these sites and healthcare social media tools will continue to proliferate. And there is also a dramatic increase in mobile health applications being developed, but this the subject of a whole post itself ๐Ÿ˜‰