Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Is social media meeting the needs of patients?

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As a health educator, I often interview patients and care partners to learn about their educational and emotional needs: what will help them manage, what do they want, where do they find it, and what’s missing? Talking with patient about their use of social media has been eye-opening.

Recently I spoke with a woman whose husband was being treated for metastatic cancer. She is the kind of care partner who jumps headfirst into learning about a condition. In her online research, she discovered a number of communities for people with metastatic cancer and quickly got connected. Eventually she came to rely on one or two communities in particular and the individuals within them (especially one moderator). She found that her social network essentially became her second opinion. The importance of the community’s advice became paramount. She surveyed the group about every treatment choice she and her husband faced—what were members’ experiences with the treatment option, and what did they suggest?

Is it human nature to value the opinions and the experiences of others?
Research shows us that it may be. About 35% of US adults use social media for health and medical purposes, according to Manhattan Research. And Pew Internet reported that 41% of patients have read someone else’s commentary on health or medical issues on a newsgroup, Web site, or blog.

Health education and public health theory suggests that the perceived value of the “experiences of others” is considerable. Watching others’ actions, for example, can teach a person the consequences of those behaviors—like a test-drive before buying a car. Social cognitive theory (a behavior change model) calls this phenomenon “observational learning.”

As a health educator, I have observed that patients want to learn from the experiences of people like them in communities online. Patients are seeking:
  • Information about the day-to-day experience with a treatment
  • Validation of their own experiences
  • Connections with others with the same condition
  • Realistic ways to manage a condition or a side effect
  • Substantiation of the information received from the doctor

How does pharma play a role?
Pharma is beginning to use social media as a tool—we all want to educate patients and meet their needs with authenticity and transparency. As the online environment evolves, we need to continue to explore the value of social media and ultimately understand the experience through the eyes of real people making heath decisions every day for themselves and others. We’re excited to explore these themes further with our clients and colleagues at ePharma 2010.

Anne Jani, MPH, CHES
Manager, Health Education
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