Alive and clicking: is social health a good thing?

What are the benefits?

One of the major benefits of social media, compared to traditional communication methods, is the ability to deliver information to people, regardless of age, education and locality. All you need is a smartphone or access to a computer. This can really help you to become more aware of your health and access the information that’s right for you.

Have you ever created a status update or tweet to let your followers and friends know that you have a headache or sore throat? Social media allows you to generate instant peer-to-peer discussions. You can receive tips and advice from individuals and health professionals who may have experience of what you’re going through. Personal stories can be a valuable source of peer, social and emotional support.

While you’re having these conversations, it also gives healthcare organisations an opportunity to personalise and present their health messages at a time when you really need it. And the versatility of different social media platforms means that health information can be presented in a way that suits the person that needs it. For example, a video on YouTube may help someone if their reading ability is low.

And if you have a chronic condition, such as diabetes, the power of social media platforms can be very liberating. You may be able to receive ongoing support and reminders about taking medication, as well as share information about your treatments and medicines. This can inform, educate and empower you to be more confident if and when you need to make decisions about your health.

As well as helping you to share information, social media can potentially be used to collect data to help doctors understand how infectious diseases start and spread. For example, lots of people in your neighbourhood may post about feeling ill. That information can be quickly gathered to tell health professionals an outbreak is occurring and how quickly it’s spreading. This means that effective interventions can be put in place as soon as possible.

What do we need to watch out for?

So far, this all sounds great but before you reach for your smartphone, let’s balance things up and consider some of the issues that are currently limiting the use of social media for delivering health information.

Have you ever looked up symptoms for yourself, a friend or family member? How do you know that the information you’re looking at is accurate and up to date? When talking about health information, it’s vital that the messages you’re receiving are of the highest quality. Social media is informal, unregulated and allows anyone to upload information, regardless of its quality. This means that you could find yourself being overloaded with information, some of which may be conflicting and confusing, or quite simply wrong.

Some people will feel perfectly comfortable sharing information about their health online. However, not everyone will realise the potential for how many people will see their information. They may not realise that what they are posting is a permanent record that lots of people can see. If you don’t like sharing personal information, social media may not be the right place to seek out and share information about yourself.

Disclosing personal information online comes with a whole host of issues. Privacy, confidentiality and the potential for security breaches are concerns for many people. It can be difficult for your doctor to communicate with you through social media. This is because conversations between you and your doctor that happen on social media channels will have is no official medical record.

So, where do you stand? The world we live in today is technology driven and it looks like social media is here to stay. Should we embrace it when it comes to accessing health information or is it better to be sceptical and proceed with caution? Whatever you do, be sure not to replace seeing your doctor with social media or self diagnosis using online platforms if you suspect something isn’t quite right. Online health information has its place, but direct doctor to patient interaction should never be underestimated.

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