Can social media help heal healthcare?

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How to get more for less? It’s an age-old question and one that is playing out today in our healthcare system. With healthcare reform top of mind these days, everyone is asking how the medical industry can treat patients better for less money. Social media often comes up in these discussions and everyone seems to have an opinion about the risks and rewards.

For all of the debate, one thing is for sure: social media in healthcare is here to stay. But when it comes to the availability of trustworthy health information, research suggests that we still have a ways to go. According to a recent Pew Internet survey, four out of five Internet users have searched for health information online, making health one of the most searched topics on the Internet. At the same time, the study also revealed that more than 50 percent say the information they find is “of no help at all.” After all, anyone with Internet access can set up a health blog or answer health questions on Google or Yahoo Answers, no credentials required.

As the CEO and founder of Avvo.com, an online legal and health Q&A forum and professional directory, I talk to hospital administrators, doctors and consumers about these issues on a regular basis. When it comes to providing information about health issues and healthcare providers online, I see a massive opportunity for improvement. Ultimately, I think it comes down to two primary actions on the part of the medical community and those providing health-focused social media platforms.

1. More doctors need to participate in the online conversation

I agree with Dr. Peter Carmel, president of the American Medical Association, who said in the recent New York Times story, “Advice for the Ill, and Points for the Doctors,” that online medical information should “complement, not replace, the communication between a patient and their physician.” But I also take issue with his assessment that providing health information without a full medical history being taken or in the absence of a physical exam “could pose a threat to patients.”

The role of online health sites is very different from that of a doctor-patient relationship. It is meant to educate, inform and orient consumers, so that they are better prepared to see their doctor. Numerous studies have been done on the average length of a doctor visit (about 13 minutes) and how patients use that time (an average of about two questions and in many cases, none). There is a tremendous upside to consumers getting more information from licensed medical professionals online, before they visit their doctor.

2. Health websites must provide greater transparency

Consumers should be able to easily access extensive profile information about the people providing medical advice online. They should be able to see if they’re licensed physicians (including their board certification), along with their years in practice, disciplinary history, education, patient and peer reviews, and employer information and contact information. Too many sites don’t provide this, and as a result, consumers get advice from medical students, or worse, people with no medical credentials whatsoever.

Avvo, along with sites like WebMD and ZocDoc, provides information about medical professionals drawn from publicly available sources. Additionally, at Avvo we use a proprietary algorithm to assign a rating to a physician’s qualifications, helping consumers who may know very little about medicine to make better, more informed decisions. The Internet has proven itself to be incredibly good at weeding out the bad and promoting the good. You’ll know a site can be trusted if it values — and provides — this level of transparency.

While the medical industry has a ways to go when it comes to embracing social media (not to mention technology in general — a topic for another day), we ought to focus on how to provide safer, more trusted health information online rather than dismiss the movement entirely out of fear and doubt. By doing so, perhaps we will actually be able to get more for less.

Mark Britton is the founder and CEO of Avvo.com, a free social media platform that provides a health and legal Q&A forum and a directory of doctors and lawyers in the U.S.

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