The Benefits and Dangers of Using Social Media
to Diagnose and Self-Treat Injury
By Dr. Michelle E. Collie
The delivery of healthcare in this country is evolving due to policy changes, escalating costs and ongoing clinical research. Additionally, social media is having a dramatic effect on the relationship healthcare providers have with their patients. The abundance of medical information available online is allowing patients to become more educated about their own health and many are now self-diagnosing and self-treating. It is a positive trend that individuals and families are taking more responsibility for their health and ultimately this cultural change has the potential to improve the overall health of the nation. However, the accessibility to endless resources does create the opportunity for injuries, inaccurate self-diagnosis, or dangerously delaying professional medical help.
Turning to Social Media for Medical Help: The Numbers
According to the Pew Research Center, 61 percent of Americans go online for health information and it doesn’t stop there. Nearly 42 percent of all adults say they or someone they know has been helped by information found on the internet compared to only 3 percent who have been harmed. The social media website of choice for learning about health information is Facebook according to a survey from the National Research Corporation. Facebook is followed by YouTube, Myspace and finally Twitter.
The Danger of Social Media on Health
Most physical therapists have encountered patients who have injured or exacerbated their condition by following advice found on YouTube or Facebook. Consider pain in the lower back: A search on YouTube using the simple key words “treatment for back pain” provides over 18,900 videos offering countless remedies, exercises, treatments, testimonies, advice and advertisements. Most of the information provided is safe and helpful for people with overuse or injury to the muscles, ligaments or joints. Unfortunately without a comprehensive evaluation, more serious conditions such as an infection or even a tumor may be missed. Medical advice offered by Facebook friends on back pain poses substantial risk if the person is suffering from a more serious ailment that demands expert medical evaluation and care if that advice delays true medical attention.
As with any medical needs, self-assessment and online research should represent just a preliminary step in diagnosing and alleviating injury/pain. While the validity and value of medical information learned online should be confirmed by a medical professional, provider recommendations from friends through social media can be a solid way to find excellent healthcare. This guidance is based on previous and personal provider experience with little or nothing to gain by promotion and is therefore potentially more trustworthy than relying on advertising or insurance company recommendations alone.
The Positive Effect of Social Media on Health
Social media gives unlimited access to vast amounts of medical information and can be used to generate awareness on a whole host of health issues. For example, social media has the potential to increase awareness of the global obesity epidemic that is affecting worldwide health as recently reported by The New York Times. Social media can widely and quickly spread alarming facts on the risks of obesity and provide resources on living a healthy lifestyle. In addition, social media allows consumers to be better advocates for their healthcare and empowers them to take responsibility for their health. Information and knowledge allow patients to seek out their providers of choice, verify their provider’s treatment plans, offer their own research, and therefore work together as a team. This model will gradually change the relationships between patients and their healthcare providers to make the interaction more collaborative and improve the overall quality of healthcare.
Adults between the ages of 18 and 49 are the most likely to use social media for health care information, so online resources will only continue to grow. Consumers and health care providers need to be optimistically cautious of the new resource and consider a comprehensive treatment plan that includes research, peer advice and professional medical opinions.