Online Healthcare: Do the risks outweigh the rewards?

When online information goes awry, how does a company reign in the misinformation (and those producing it)?

Social Media CharlotteAt the September gathering of Social Media Breakfast – Charlotte (#smbclt), panelists addressed this question in relation to health care.  Gayle Tuttle, the director of strategic communications for Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina; Karen Albittron, president of Capstrat (a Raleigh-based communication agency); and Katie Ratchford, public relations specialist for Carolinas Medical Center, led the discussion about social media’s role in Healthcare.

According to Capstrat’s April 2010 public policy polls, Google is the second most influential source for healthcare decision-making (second only to doctors, but ranked above nurses and pharmacists). Initially, I thought the discussion would likely surround methods and tactics for combating misinformation in an online setting. However, the conversation was more geared toward the use of media by patients to access health information online, or to share their own information with others.

Participatory media abounds in the healthcare discussion. Patients with diagnosed conditions share their experiences in chat rooms, on caringbridge sites, and in patient-based forums designed to be social support networks for those with a shared experience. Doctors share their experiences with other doctors on internal (and often private) social networking sites to learn about treatment opportunities. Insurance providers offer customer support forums and online resources to improve the customer experience. And, advocacy groups attempt to create reliable storehouses for information on their respective diseases.

Yet, healthcare providers seem to be hesitant to use mediated platforms to provide health services. This hesitation occurs for obvious reasons: legal barriers to sharing patient medical information; risks associated with incorrect diagnoses; and financial reimbursement for time spent in e-care.  Thus, in what appears to be a reactive approach to communication, health care providers are spending relatively more time managing their mediated brands and reputations than working to provide better patient care through mediated platforms.

But some doctors are experimenting with social media for patient care. In an article on this topic, Kate Pickert, writing for Time Magazine (August 9, 2010) notes:

“A study published in the July issue of Health Affairs indicates that patients who use e-mail to communicate with their doctors not only save time and money but also have healthier outcomes … Given this news and given that millions of Americans have had e-mail accounts for more than a decade, why is it that only a small percentage of physicians report that they use the tool with patients?”  (read more)

So, is there a place for mediated doctor-patient interaction? The answer might be an obvious, “Yes,” but this type of interaction can only occur when its benefits outweigh the risks.

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