Prescription for Disaster?

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Posted At: April 22, 2013 2:00 p.m.
by Haley Clemons

Could the necessary 911 call be changing to a 911 tweet? Surprisingly, this question is not as farfetched as it may seem. Thanks to social media, medical assistance and diagnoses are coming in the form of posts, tweets and photo comments. Some doctors and patients are even breaking down traditional barriers and heading to social media to friend and follow each other. Doctors are making themselves available 24/7, and patients are taking advantage of the hassle-free communication. Although this development may seem like the cure to doctor office phone tag, it is creating an epidemic of controversy. For some, accepting social media use in the medical community is a tough pill to swallow.

But, how many doctors are using social media for patient relations? Anna Wilde Mathews of the Wall Street Journal references a study by the Journal of General Internal Medicine that states “94 percent of medical students, 79 percent of residents and 42 percent of practicing physicians reported some use of online social networks, nearly all for personal reasons. Among the practicing physicians, 35 percent said they had received a ‘friend’ request from a patient or family member — and 58 percent of those who had received those ‘friend’ requests said they always rejected them.”

Many doctors shy away from adding a patient to their personal networking sites for fear of overstepping the boundaries of a professional relationship. Also, a lot of the negative questions surround the topic of patient privacy. The fear is that doctors might compromise the situation by accidentally or purposely posting about a particular patient and their condition. Doctors who have made themselves available online are cautious with every post.

Although privacy could potentially become an issue, many believe that it is necessary for physicians to stay present in the online community. Some doctors connect to their patients for outside consultations, offering advice if new symptoms arise after patient’s initial visit. If they can’t find an answer, doctors can often connect quickly with other medical experts who may have a suggestion for the problem. This effort cuts out any middleman and generates more immediate responses. Best of all, the patients get all of this medical advice for free. But, is this fair to other patients whose doctors do not offer the same open communication?

As far as doctors benefiting from social media use, many have seen improvements in business by setting up a Facebook fan page or Twitter account strictly for business practices. Socialnomics.com offers a few helpful guidelines from a patient’s and doctor’s perspective on successful social media use for medical purposes.

But, sometimes, patients can find answers themselves without the help of a doctor.

Imagine you are a young mother who has a child that is very ill. This is not your typical fever and cough; your child is beginning to swell and is only getting worse as he takes his antibiotics. Your 4-year-old boy can barely move. Just a few days ago, your child was running around with his friends and came home with a small rash. You are worried because no one seems to know what is wrong. This is exactly what happened to Deborah Kogan.

After Deborah posted pictures of her son with a caption that read, “swelling worse,” several people began to comment and offer support. Luckily, one of Deborah’s friends saw the photo and decided to call. She advised Deborah to go to a hospital immediately. When she asked why, her friend told her that her son had the same symptoms and that he had been diagnosed with a rare auto-immune disorder called Kawaski disease. The disease attacks the veins around your heart and can do damage as early as five days after the symptoms arise. Turns out, Deborah’s friend was right.

Deborah’s son was rightfully diagnosed because of social media, which would not have been possible decades ago. Deborah wrote about the event saying that Facebook saved her son’s life and she is eternally grateful.

With all of the controversy surrounding doctor/patient relations via social media, do you think the pros outweigh the cons? Are any ethical lines being crossed? Finally, is this good PR for medical businesses or a prescription for disaster?

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