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Why online social networking should change what we know about healthcare

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  By Henry Wei, M.D.,  August 6, 2012

The rise of ubiquitous online connectivity between patients and their physicians is bringing a new era to those who prefer to interact from the safety of their own environments.

Introverts make up about half the population. In any given year, about 7 percent of Americans are also suffering from social phobia, a fear of being in public so great that it is defined, in part, by a tendency to get in the way of daily life. What happens to the healthcare experience for these demographics? If it’s at best uncomfortable and at worst panic provoking to venture out into the world, does it become impossible for some to seek psychiatric care, let alone regular medical care?

My bet is that the online experience is changing this, and in particular, for healthcare interactions. What happens when computers, tablets and smartphones start to allow patients to communicate with doctors and therapists in a virtual space? The rise of ubiquitous online connectivity between patients and their physicians is bringing a new era to those who prefer to interact from the safety of their own environments. As a result, there’s currently no shortage of telepsychiatry startups in the current health IT bubble, among them BreakThrough, iCouch, Cope Today and HealthLinkNow. Behind the safe, bullet-proof glass of, say, an iPhone or iPad with a front-facing camera, perhaps it becomes easier to think about visiting a mental health professional. (Parking, at least, is no longer a concern.)

These seemingly innovative startups may owe a lot to Dr. Warner Slack, a passionate but otherwise mild-mannered forefather to modern medical informatics. In the 1960s, while still a neurology resident, Dr. Slack was at the front of the incipient patient empowerment movement. He was also wildly optimistic about the use of computers in medicine – this, in the pre-PC era. By the end of that decade, he had developed computer systems that could directly engage with patients. Already then, he noted in one seminal paper, nearly 50 percent of the 275 patients he studied preferred interacting with the machine, while only 30 percent preferred interacting with the doctor. Furthermore, a small but significant contingent indicated that they preferred both!

Dr. Slack’s findings about how people interface with computers to disclose and explore their health information would go on to be replicated in different ways. Other researchers, for example, would show that people in emergency rooms are more likely to disclose sensitive information about domestic violence and substance abuse to a computer than to a human clinician. Importantly, we see these behaviors even more strongly today: On social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, people often feel at liberty to not only reveal the mundane, but also to expose the deepest, most personal aspects of their lives online.

So, as physicians, we may be foolish to believe that our in-person, one-on-one, scheduled about-12-minute way of interacting with patients will last. Increasingly, that’s a tough sell when compared to a longitudinal, technology-based engagement with 24/7 access – all with the benefit of being able to solicit more in-depth information from introverts or social phobia patients in particular. It might feel heretical to think that a doctor wouldn’t be the person to figure out, for example, if patients’ blood pressure medications are ruining their sex lives. But in good technology, there’s not only a certain non-judgmental facade of the machine, there are also ways to gather information that aren’t mutually exclusive with good bedside manner.

I’ll go out on a limb here to suggest that we can no longer accuse medicine of being a profession of Luddites. For approximately two decades, we’ve seen doctors claim that poor electronic medical record adoption is due to old timers “just not getting it.” That excuse is wearing thin.

We’ll need to push together to figure out the right way to adopt the best models to start using technology not just for keeping records or ordering drugs or tests, but to interact with patients. To this end, it would behoove physicians to consider the opportunity for social networking platforms to elicit deep, meaningful conversations about the patient experience (check out IAmA posts on Reddit, for example).

As Wendy Sue Swanson (@seattlemamadoc) recently said (and as I’ll horribly paraphrase), we can certainly follow defensive guidelines on the use of social media such as the AMA Policy: Professionalism in the Use of Social Media, but what we need are pioneers to help guide us to unlock and unleash the power of these platforms to effect positive change. While the AMA policy suggests that physicians’ actions online may negatively affect their reputations, we yearn for a guideline that suggests other physicians’ actions online may positively affect entire patient populations.

If the social platforms Facebook and Twitter played an instrumental role in fomenting the Arab Spring uprisings, in mobilizing, empowering, shaping opinions and influencing change, we physicians are perhaps overly conservative if we still think Twitter is for twits, rather than a revolutionary channel for public health.

Warner Slack saw much of this in 1968; computer-based, online patient interactions can be our avenue into richer, more fundamental patient histories. They don’t replace good doctors – they augment them. And they’re not just fancy survey tools. To borrow a cue from Harvard medical anthropologist and sociologist Dr. Arthur Kleinman, it’s the phenomenology – the “what’s at stake” – that truly matters for patients’ healthcare lives. Online patient interactions and social networking platforms are now combining to elicit and share deeper, more candid and more sensitive accounts and narratives of illness and health – a collective, rather than individual, patient phenomenology. Needless to say, this is about to change medicine as we know it. If physicians aren’t there to seize the opportunity here and now in 2012, shame on us for once again not taking the lead.

About the author

Dr. Henry Wei is an internal medicine physician based in New York City and a member of Doximity’s advisory board. The views expressed here are his personal opinion. You can follow Dr. Wei at http://twitter.com/henryweimd.

Learn more about Doximity, a professional networking tool exclusively for physicians and healthcare professionals, at www.doximity.com.


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