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Integrating social media into the health sector has always been a controversial subject and one that has polarized opinion amongst health professionals worldwide. To provide an insight, we set up a one-off interview with medical futurist, Dr Bertalan Mesko, who speaks globally about issues relating to social media in medicine. Here’s what he had to say:
HE:   Public life is now completely obsessed with social media. Some historians even think it could define a whole era, coining such phrases as ‘The Age of Facebook.’ What do you think the general positives of such a sweeping online movement are?
BM:   I don't think there are major differences between the online and offline lives. I tell my medical students that they should treat the two ‘worlds’ in the same way when providing care. Social media is more interactive, archived and faster than real life, but these are just minor differences. What matters is how we communicate whether it's on an online channel or in real life.
I'm not sure people think ahead that much and realize that the new generation will be able to check almost every single step of their parents lives. This will ultimately affect parenting in more ways than one, so maybe people should consider this. This is similar to the way medical students and young doctors should be aware of the fact that future employers will check their social media profiles first.
HE:   OK, but what are the negatives?
BM:   The negative aspect comes back to the original statement about the minor differences between the online and offline worlds. Some people, especially in medicine, think they can hide online but if there is one place in the world where you cannot hide, that is certainly the Internet. They must accept now the need for better online presences because patients are bound to do a check-up about their future doctors online. This is how the Internet has changed the way society works. It is much easier to check someone's Facebook/Twitter/LinkedIn profile first than to meet them in real life. This is how we get to know more about each other. It is a part of medical communication now.
HE:   Considering the connotations of health care and the fact that it isn’t inherently social, as for example shopping or dining is, do you think that if industries leverage social media, it could detract from the very serious issues at hand?
BM:   I think healthcare is absolutely social. Many years ago, before the Internet era, people with a new diagnosis went home and discussed that with family members, relatives and even their neighbors. It has always been social, although it's social now in a different way. As the World Wide Web introduced the concept of long tail search terms, it's much simpler these days to find patients dealing with similar conditions and symptoms. We can even discuss our problems with them anonymously, or read other patients' experiences through blogs and Facebook groups. Actually, healthcare has become more social than ever. For recent examples, see SmartPatients and Inspire.
HE:   The Journal of Internet Medical Research have suggested that 60% of adults used the internet to find health information and that less than 15% actually surveyed social media outlets to discuss health with their peers. Do you think a ‘health meets social media’ mentality is even plausible?
BM:   One can find different statistics about that from Pew Internet Research and Manhattan Research to studies published in JMIR. Personally, I see an extraordinary increase in medical social media conversations. While years ago some of us raised the possibility of using social media in medical communication; these days we all focus on the meaningful use because the adoption is clearly beneficial. This is what we focused on at the recent Doctors 2.0 and You conference as well.
HE:   How and in what ways do you think healthcare providers should adapt to these new online trends?
BM:   We don't have to reinvent the wheel here. I always advise healthcare providers and pharmaceutical companies to listen first. Their target audiences have been active online for some time and have already outlined their needs. If they can find these key opinion leaders and listen to their needs first, they won't have to run unnecessary circles. Social media channels should be acknowledged as a way of communication from within a healthcare provider's mind or a company's circle to the outside world full of relevant people.
HE:   Offering discount and health savings could be a positive move for America, but here in the UK, the health care system is different. We don’t have to pay for health services and our medical sector is not as commercialised as in the US, so what should be the core aims for the UK?
BM:   Discounts and offers are not the only ways of using social media. Disease awareness has become potentially more successful than ever. The best example I always use is the social media campaign of the British Heart Foundation in which a video featuring Vinnie Jones and proper CPR was in the focus.
HE:   Do you think Google Glass will change the face of Medicine?
BM:   It won't change the future of medicine but is already providing new opportunities in delivering healthcare. It took years for smartphones to become integral parts of medical communication and mobile health still has not reached its full potential therefore it will take even more time for Google Glass to reach the state of meaningful use. As we have to follow the path of evidence-based medicine, compared to many other industries, it takes time to conduct studies which measure the effectiveness of using such gadgets in practicing medicine.
HE:   Are there anymore interesting ‘social media meets health’ features you want to tell us about?
BM:   I think there is a huge need for a clear and content-rich guide about using social media in the clinical practice and it's a great pleasure for me to share the news that my book dedicated to this crucial issue will be published this August.
HE:   At HealthExpress, we endeavour to provide the best service for our patients and to deliver easy-to-access information and advice regarding certain health conditions. Do you think a social media campaign is a helpful way of reaffirming these values?
BM:   It depends, as social media campaigns should not substitute real-life health conversations, only adding additional value to those. Together offline and online communication are meant to deliver the best results in my experience.
Interesting stuff from Dr. Mesko, his clear expertise has illuminated key issues regarding a social media meets health mentality. We would like to know your views relating to this. Do you think such a mentality is a positive step or a negative one?