Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Social Media and Medical Care

Not so long ago people were being warned off reading medical information on the worldwide web (WWW) as much content was untrustworthy or information was unsuitable for the untrained eye.

A lot has changed. There is still a need for high quality information resources to be clearly distinguished from less useful or even damaging content (HonCode) but overall there is considerably more good trustworthy content than there was 5 years ago - in the UK we have the NHS hosting its own content and other high quality medical services do the same e.g.(Mayo Clinic, Great Ormond Street, Drugs.com).

It is a good thing that availability of high quality information is becoming the norm as a recent Price Waterhouse Cooper survey found that:
According to HRI’s survey, 42% of consumers have used social media to access health-related consumer reviews (e.g. of treatments or physicians).

Andrew McCracken  takes a closer look in his recent article for the Royal College of Physicians. In particular the ability of Twitter to promote and support rapid 'conversations' online are mentioned. In one example someone uses Twitter to send a quick question to NHS direct (a phone based health information resource used by UK government to provide information to patients) which was relied to quickly, saving a phone call and time on both sides of the conversation.

An example in the PwC report is of a patient in a waiting room sending a message to Twitter (known as Tweeting) complaining that they had not yet been seen while others that came into ER (known as A&E in UK) had already passed through. The Twitter was read by a member of staff and they responded by coming to explain to the patients why they were waiting. This can only have been possible if the ER ran and monitored its own Twitter account and the patient had Tweeted to that account, or mentioned the hospital directly.

There are possibilities for the use of this technology that may be attractive to the patient (i.e. getting attention quickly) but any advantages would quickly lost if the care provider was unaware and failed to monitor the tweets constantly. It also has limitations as Twitter only accepts 140 characters per message and conversations are made public.
Used incorrectly or without great thought it is hard to see how this is going to save much money for those that pay for healthcare yet (paid staff may well be needed to monitor Twitter) and not many doctors are going to have time to constantly reply.

  • Is there an advantage to the public asking questions on Twitter? Yes - it is free of charge whereas phonecalls are not. 
  • Is there an advantage to the provider answering questions on Twitter? Fewer, shorter interactions are possible but then the phonecall charges presumably go towards providing the service.
  • Is there an advantage to having all conversations made public on a website with facilities to search? Yes as earlier answers can be found easily thus potentially avoiding the need for another Twitter/call. This cannot happen with phonecalls.
  • Can Twitter conversations reduce the numbers of appointments needed with GP's much like it is hoped NHS Direct phone lines do? Possibly yes - NHSDirect are already hosting & monitoring Twitter and the NHSDirect service is ever expanding in response to demand - we can only assume that translates into less need for a GP appointment.

Perhaps this is the future of healthcare advice in the UK - NHSDirect are effectively constructing a new model for providing healthcare information in just the same way as they did when setting up the original phone service.

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