Health Care Needs Social Media

By Joe Shepley

Supporting better outcomes in health care for patients is a pressing societal need. Health care costs in the US are some of the highest in the world, while the quality of that care is relatively low vis a vis other nations. For at least 35 years, a wide range of stakeholder groups have been applying themselves to solving the US healthcare problem, with little to show for it.

In part, this is because the US health care system is incredibly complex. It involves a wide range of stakeholders–patients and their advocates, the government, regulators, employers, health care providers, health payers, pharmacy benefit managers, pharmacies, and life sciences drug and device manufacturers–yet no single stakeholder holds enough influence to change the system; rather, a coordinated effort among multiple stakeholders will be required to address and overcome the challenges our healthcare system faces.

Patient centricity, i.e., a focus on the needs of the patient and beneficial outcomes for them, has emerged as one important way that stakeholders can address the challenges facing the US healthcare system. So it’s not surprising that patient centricity has become a growing priority in a number of industries central to health care reform, such as life sciences drug and device manufacturers, health payers and providers, and patient advocacy groups. For the most part, however, adopting a patient centric approach has been difficult due to access, i.e., how can we effectively engage with patients to positively impact the outcome of their care?

The rapid growth and adoption of public social media sites has offered one answer to the problem of access, but it’s also presented a challenge to every one of the institutional stakeholders in the US health care system (i.e., everyone except for patients) because the use of public social media to engage with patients raises significant and seemingly intractable concerns regarding privacy, regulatory compliance, operations, e-discovery, public relations, and information security. And while a few cutting-edge firms are tackling these issues head on, the vast majority have adopted a wait and see posture, doing nothing (or close to nothing) until regulators or the industry at large (or both) can reach consensus on the acceptable usage of public social media for the health care industry.

For patients, in contrast, the growth of social media and the internet has presented tremendous opportunities: to take more initiative in their course of treatment by learning about their condition, to mitigate the negative psychological effects of disease by building communities of fellow patients, to improve their adherence to regimens of care by sharing information and experiences, and to influence policy and private industry alike by joining together in massive numbers in public forums to advocate for their needs. In rapidly increasing numbers, patients are leveraging social media and the internet for all these reasons, and the trend shows no signs of stopping–but rather is poised to continue to grow exponentially for the foreseeable future.

But as promising as the surge in patient adoption of social media and the internet is, without a corresponding adoption by industry, the effect will be limited and deliver less value to the overall US health care system than it otherwise could. For this reason, we believe that it’s time for the key US healthcare stakeholders to come together to develop guidelines for the use of the internet and social media in health care that, because they begin from the premise of patient centricity rather than from the narrow focus of any single industry, will contribute signally to the overall goal of improving health care outcomes for patients as well as materially benefit industry stakeholders.