Can social media improve health? Twitter, Facebook execs weigh in

Tanya Albert Henry , Contributing News Writer

There’s no question that people are turning to internet search engines, blogs and social media to figure out what symptoms mean, learn more about a condition after diagnosis, connect with others facing similar health challenges and more.

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Now it is time for those in health care, and those who shape social media and other online interactions, to make sure patients performing those searches are getting the most accurate health information and using tools that will ultimately lead to better outcomes for them, according to a panel of experts that included representatives from Twitter and Facebook.

The panelists spoke at the HLTH conference in Las Vegas, the largest conference for health innovation. The AMA, which is focused on making technology an asset in the delivery of care instead of a burden, was an innovation partner at HLTH and shared how the organization is driving the future of digital health.

Earlier this year, the  AMA sent a letter to top executives at Amazon, Facebook, Google, Pinterest, Twitter and YouTube urging them to do more to stem the “proliferation” of “health-related misinformation” that has helped vaccine-preventable diseases to reemerge.

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The vast majority of internet users search for health-related topics online. About 40% of those consumers told researchers that the information they found affected how they interacted with the health care system.

“From a Twitter perspective, we are concerned about the public conversation,” said Lisa Bookwalter, who oversees the health sector at Twitter. “It’s making sure people are connected to the right places and making sure the information is credible is hugely, hugely important because without that piece, it can become a detriment instead of a service.”

While ensuring accurate information is very important, practicing interventional cardiologist Freddy Abnousi, MD, MSc, said if technology is used right, it has the potential to improve health outcomes.

Dr. Abnousi, the head of health care research at Facebook, said negative outside exposures, genetics, and health care access and quality each affect patients’ health outcomes. Patients' interactions on social media, meanwhile, also are a major driver of health outcomes, he said.

“If we put a hospital and clinic on every corner, the data would suggest we are not going to impact outcomes that much, but if we invest in and understand social media, perhaps that is where we can turn the tide around,” Dr. Abnousi said. “My hope is we try to understand this better and improve health outcomes.”

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Dr. Abnousi noted that most of what happens in health care is designed for physicians and health professionals, not the patient. He said if medicine rethinks design with the consumer in mind, it could go a long way in improving health outcomes. For example, understanding how different people communicate could help improve medication adherence rates.

“I don’t think we should make use of tech if it is just making noise. But if there is a way to improve outcomes, it should be incorporated,” Dr. Abnousi said. “We have to decide what makes sense for people. For some people, more technology is better. For some people, less technology is better. … Designing around humans and what makes their outcomes better is where we should start.”

Bookwalter added that social media platforms aren’t something to be feared. Instead, she said, they represent a chance to shape conversations in a positive way.

“It’s an opportunity to impact health outcomes in a very real way and to talk to people in a way that is going to make them take their medicine—to change their lifestyle because you are talking to them in a way that they are talking to each other,” she said.

The AMA Code of Medical Ethics offers guidance for doctors on professionalism in the use of social media. Patients and physicians should connect with the AMA on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram.