September 24, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

How can the social media revolution shape the way we access healthcare? ...


“Tweeting”, “liking”, “tagging” – just a few years ago, these terms would have been alien to us. Today, they are entrenched in our day-to-day lives. The rise of social media represents a true sociological change, disrupting classical communication channels and revolutionising the way develop relationships, share information and influence opinion. Importantly, it provides a golden opportunity for industries to engage consumers – and (as is often the case), the healthcare industry has been slow to catch on.

Evidence from PricewaterhouseCoopers suggests that one third of adults in the U.S. use social media for health related matters, and that this number is rapidly increasing. In particular, we use social media to access health information and reviews – for example of medications, treatments and hospitals, and to search for and share health experiences.

There are various ways by which the National Health Service can benefit from this. By posting up-to-date public health information, the NHS can keep patients healthy in a cost-effective manner. For example, when we were all concerned about norovirus around Christmas time, NHS Choices tweeted “Think you have #norovirus? Follow these steps to help ease your symptoms…”

Due to the vast potential audience and instantaneous nature of social media, health information can be disseminated in a truly viral manner – one tweet by NHS Direct about an online mental health checker was visible to up to 32,000 people through re-tweeting. One hospital in Houston, Texas went as far as live-tweeting heart surgery in the hope of engaging and educating the public: “Welcome! First LIVE #Twittercast of an open #heartsurgery for the US by Memorial Hermann #hospital in #houstontx #MHopenheart”.

In addition, by providing timely access to patient experience, social media is a tool to gain invaluable feedback and identify poor and exceptional care in a timely manner – an application that is particularly critical following the Mid-Staffordshire scandal that was recently brought to the public’s attention. Social media also offers opportunities to respond to queries and problems of individual patients; Roger Donald, NHS Direct’s Head of Digital Delivery, says “we can engage with our critics to resolve problems and correct factual inaccuracies.”

Patients benefit from the increase in availability of heath information  through social media; contributing to a shift in the doctor/patient relationship, from “paternalistic medicine” where the doctor does the talking and the patient does the listening, to “participatory medicine” where the more informed patient plays an important role in determining their care. Patients also benefit from the community aspect of social media; for example, there are Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and forums for a vast range of medical conditions in which patients can post personal experiences and advice, providing comfort and a sense of support to fellow sufferers.

Clearly the benefits social media can bring to the healthcare industry are vast, particularly at the moment as the NHS faces the daunting task of making £20 billion worth of savings by 2015. Social media will form a valuable component of its strategy to achieve this goal, by providing opportunities to increase efficiency and cost-effectiveness while keeping the patient at the heart of events.


IMAGE: Flickr/Jason A. Howie