Doctors complain about having to compete with–or, more often, correct–Doctor Google, and patients searching for medical answers online. But for every suspect Google search result or WebMD symptom check, there are untold swarms of social posts, shares, and comments that further dilute the reliability of online medical information.
With the bluster and fury of the 2016 presidential election, the problem of fake news has been magnified and analyzed by political commentators ad nauseum, but while political passions ebb and flow, there has never been a shortage of interest in health-related tips, hacks, shortcuts, and silver bullets. In the world of fake news, medical information is a legacy offender, as much a product of ignorance as malicious intent, confusion as well as obfuscation.
With or without an agenda, medical misinformation abounds, and is as poised to go viral as any meme or cat photo.
Doing Social the Right Way
Social media has very real benefits to the healthcare industry: patient support groups connect even the hospital-bound, provide hope and resources to patients, parents, and whole families; social channels open advocacy channels and give scale and momentum to awareness campaigns and fundraisers; public health warnings and news of disease outbreaks can go viral even more quickly than actual viruses, saving money and resources through voluntary prevention efforts.
The positive impact of social media isn’t even contingent on spreading the right (that is, accurate) medical information. Research shows that workout plants incorporating a little healthy competition through social platforms increase adherence and can make a measurable difference in achieving fitness goals. Where wearables and other fitness trackers and apps enter the mix, people have quantifiable ways to share their progress, compete with friends, and even engage more with providers at the point of care.
Confidence, conversation, and personal information all intersect and spread through social networks, putting power into the hands of users and those with whom they connect.
Fake News, Real Consequences
Bad information accessed online isn’t the only threat social media poses to healthcare in the digital age. The rampant peer to peer abuse, shaming, and bullying online that inevitably accompanies social spaces can be just as damaging to confidence and self-improvement efforts as positive affirmations are helpful. The always-on culture of digital natives can make social media as much a health hazard as helpful tool, leading to addiction and withdrawal as well as a skewed perception of reality and happiness itself.
Bad medical information can threaten physical health, but the misrepresentation of everyday life that provides the backdrop to many social platforms can debilitate the mental and emotional lives of users as well.
The emerging mobile and socially connected healthcare system blurs another line: the doctor-patient relationship.
Is Your Relationship Facebook Official?
Providers, administrators, and lawmakers are paving the way for greater telemedicine access and support; EHRs are being designed to incorporate patient portals to help bridge the gap between clinical encounters; the Internet of Things promises to add a constant stream of information to social as well as clinical channels. In all these ways and more, the always-on world of social media threatens to intersect with and transform the way doctors and patients connect.
Doctors can’t ignore the potential benefits of social media, nor can they hope to ever silence the voices spreading misinformation and confounding efforts to engage and empower patients. Yet they are limited in their ability to get fully on board with social channels, befriending patients and taking their insights and expertise to the very places where people are looking for free, accessible medical information.
The scale and reach of fake news in the political realm has many calling for changes to our education system, more emphasis on critical thinking and analytical skills, and greater accountability from news outlets and social influencers. There is a similar, but perhaps even more critical need for health literacy among the masses, not just to become better consumers of healthcare, but to better police the spread and exchange of medical news online.
We’ve invented the world’s most powerful megaphone, and put one in the hands of every person with internet access. Our doctors, teachers, and caregivers of every stripe aren’t responsible for getting us here, but now we need them to help show us a better way forward.