african healthcare worker using tablet computer

The Internet, with all its promise of information and knowledge, can be an incredibly confusing place to find a straight, honest, no-spin answer to a health question. If you ask ten family members or friends where they go for answers to that tickle in their throat or the best diet advice, you will likely get a different answer each time. There are certainly trusted sources of straight information, from Wikipedia to WebMD, but self-diagnosis is notoriously unreliable, and it’s easy to dismiss our symptoms or exaggerate them into something unrelated.

In the case of doctors and nurses joining social media, they do so at a much slower pace. Many health institutions discourage staff from “friending” patients on Facebook and other social media platforms at the risk of jeopardizing treatment as well as reputations. HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) also prevents doctors from personalizing any advice they may have over social media. All is not lost on this front, as many doctors have started blogging and posting general, unspecified health and diet information that they believe will help all of their patients. In this way, they can help their patients keep their general health much higher and provide a reliable source of information about a variety of topics. Check and see if your doctor has a professional social media account, but avoid their personal accounts, as many will be forced to reject friend requests and the like, due to the aforementioned restrictions.

Thankfully, we are starting to see doctors, nurses, and even hospitals join social media to reach out to patients and, more importantly, to let us reach out to them! Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, has opened a position called ‘Interactive Marketing Specialist’ for the purpose of promoting engagement with patients and to empathize and provide relevant health news. Le Bonheur even has a general email address for private communication that any potential or current patient can use to talk to a team member at the hospital. Online therapy sessions are also being observed for their effectiveness, and according to a study done by the University of Sydney which examined the effectiveness of Internet-delivered Cognitive Behavior Therapy (iCBT), specifically the service ‘e-couch,’ they are effective. In the university’s study, the program was more effective in alleviating mild-to-moderate depression and cardiovascular ailments as well as physical health issues than other methods of searching for health advice online. “Essentially, online therapy will help serve the nearly 3-out-of-4 people who have mental health problems but do not currently get any kind of help,” says Lawrence Shapiro, Ph.D., President of Talk to An Expert, Inc., a HIPAA-compliant e-therapy company that launched quite recently. “It is particularly important for people who cannot get to an office for conventional help because they are housebound, in remote areas, physically disabled, and so on.  Online therapy lowers the bar for people who need help.”

The bottom line is that social media and healthcare can go hand in hand. More and more healthcare organizations are learning that social media can be an effective tool to get their patients to engage and learn. More importantly, it provides a safe and reliable area on the Internet to find the answers we need, without relying on websites that may be funding motivated, written by an unknown hand, or have specific commercial or agenda-driven motives. Hopefully, the trend of healthcare professionals joining social media will continue.


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