Sian Claire Owen, Cardio Debate medical journalist

Social media is emerging as an exciting and promising set of tools that can help bridge the gaps in communication between patients and healthcare professionals.

It facilitates peer-to-peer discussion between practitioners, enables dissemination of online educational resources and fosters support and information-sharing in patient groups.

Social media is an umbrella term that encompasses any digital platform (website or application) that allows users to create, share and comment on content. In addition to the usual suspects – Facebook and Twitter – social media also encompasses blogs, forums and wikis, for example [1]. And as such, the advantages and possibilities are huge.

For example, Dr Kevin R Campbell, Division of Cardiology, University of North Carolina, US, recently wrote in US Cardiology Review (Radcliffe Cardiology) that: “The widespread use of online resources by patients has created the concept of the electronic patient, or the e-patient,” adding that an e-patient is “fully invested in their healthcare – they consider themselves an equal partner with their physician in the management of their disease. They are well-informed and use online resources on a regular basis.” Crucially, he reports that around 60% of e-patients use social media. [2]

And many practices are taking advantage of this. Brownlow Health is an award-winning NHS GP practice based in Liverpool, UK. They have one of the largest Twitter followings in the country [3], and they make the most of what social media has to offer. Dr Ian Pawson, one of the GP partners in the practice, tells Cardio Debate that: “Social media allows us to share messages to try to assist patients in navigating their way through the practice in the ways that are more efficient for us as a practice system. In some instances, this may reduce demand, ensuring only appropriate presentations to the surgery.”

“Furthermore,” he adds, “Social media enables patients to access services via the practice in an informed, more efficient way. It helps us provide useful information about general health, and allows us to easily filter timely information about health updates to our practice population. Also updates about urgent practice issues can be communicated quickly.”

Of course this introduces some real dangers, most notably in the dissemination of unsound information, or to coin a popular phrase ‘fake news’. Patients who are researching and discussing their conditions online must be directed to quality information sources. One only has to think of the anti-vaccine movement on social media as a good example of misleading information online. [4]

However, the general consensus is that the benefits outweigh the pitfalls. As Dr Campbell writes: “Social media can be an effective platform to promote wellness and positive lifestyle changes […] in order to positively affect outcome.” [2]

The benefits also apply to healthcare professionals and their colleagues. Dr Campbell says that: “By increasing our opportunities for meaningful interactions with colleagues, we are more likely to share ideas and innovate.” [2] And Professor Pascal Meier, editor-in-chief of the Open Heart cardiology journal and prolific Tweeter agrees, writing in the Patient Research Exchange website that: “Social media has made people more accessible than ever, allowing you to talk to peers you may never have met otherwise.” [5]

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