Social networks are changing the way various healthcare stakeholders communicate with each other with far reaching implications for healthcare ecosystem.
Similar to their growing impact on other industries, social networks are playing an important role in healthcare and Online Patient Communities (OPCs) are one such consequence. While patient support groups have been there for a long time, online communities are a very recent phenomenon and have several advantages over support groups.
1. OPCs remove the physical barriers.
Not every patient and physician may be able to present physically at a support group. Transportation difficulties, scheduling issues and the mere discomfort can prevent people from benefitting from support groups. At times, the medical condition of the patients too becomes an obstacle. For example, a lung cancer patient may find it inconvenient to attend a support group with an oxygen supply that needs to be towed.
OPCs have no such issues. Patients and caregivers can communicate with each other from the comfort of their homes. They can initiate, pause, stop, continue and review any conversation at any time. While face-to-face communication has its impact, the advantages of OPCs far outweigh the limitations.
2. OPCs are more conducive to participation from healthcare professionals.
Physicians are usually time-poor and rarely participate in support groups unless and until their presence is necessary. Besides, a good physician need not necessarily be a good facilitator or interpersonal communicator.
OPCs make healthcare professionals less hesitant in interacting with others. According to a survey, two-thirds of physicians who are familiar with these communities say they have positive impact on patients. Almost 40% of these physicians say they already recommend patient communities to their patients and another 40% would consider recommending them
The anonymity offered by social networks also helps patients get more candid about expressing their concerns and this enables physicians to understand their patients better.
3. Caregivers are more inclined to participate in OPCs.
Caregivers, especially family caregivers, are probably the most underappreciated sector of the healthcare ecosystem. A recent study by PEW reveals that 52% caregivers have participated in at least one online activity related to healthcare in the past year. 34% of them ‘read or watched someone else’s experience and commentary on a healthcare-related issue’ and 22% went online to find other caregivers who have similar issues and concerns as they did. So OPCs are a great platform for not just the patients but caregivers as well.
4. OPCs are a great source of information and aid in patient empowerment.
Online patient communities are a great source of education to people seeking information about various health-related topics. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association states that information seeking effectiveness, rather than social support, which affects the patient’s perceived empathy in their interaction with healthcare professionals and this puts OPCs at an advantageous position over support groups.
Another study involving patients with arthritis, breast cancer and fibromyalgia found that OPCs play a role in helping patients becoming better informed and this has a demonstrable effect on their empowerment.
5. OPCs are more than chat rooms. They have other healthcare applications too.
Social networks are a great tool for healthcare organisations to reach relevant stakeholders to collect information and pursue collaboration in disease management, clinical trial recruitment, health professional training and treatment/physician/hospital selection.
For example, PatientsLikeMe, an online patient community, offers 24/7 health plans for disease management. Novartis recruited voluntary subjects for multiple sclerosis trials from the same community. Sermo and Ozmosis invite physicians to submit cases for community discussion and radRounds built a strong community of radiology professionals to share and collaborate on cases and opinions.
With online patient communities on social networks already demonstrating their impact on healthcare in a limited manner, in a not too distant future they will become an integral part of the healthcare ecosystem. They have changed the health-related information sharing and empowered patients and care providers alike.