At the urging of the FDA, last week Walgreens decided to postpone sales of a self-administered genetic test kit to determine genetic predisposition to various diseases. Central to one major argument against such tests is the concern that regular people – without the help of a healthcare professional – won’t be able to adequately interpret the results. This unfortunately represents the traditional attitude of medical professionals towards patient knowledge and communication. A medical student at the University of Rochester laments, “Despite efforts to emphasize patient education in medical school I find that, in practice, clinicians tend to underestimate a patient’s ability to understand his or her medical problem.”
Happily, a growing movement within medicine, known as patient-centered care, emphasizes doctor-patient communication, joint decision-making and patient education and studies have shown it has a measurable benefit to outcomes. It should be no surprise, then, that the internet, and social media in particular, is an amazing tool for patient education and many physicians are realizing its immense value.
There is an online support group for virtually every condition or illness, allowing people to connect emotionally with others, share tips, advice, and words of encouragement. These connections, which aid recovery and keep morale high, are all the more important to patients who otherwise cannot connect because of rare disease or geographic isolation. Social media is central to all these connections – blogs, Facebook, Twitter and even YouTube help people find information and support.
This kind of online patient education allows more meaningful discussions with physicians and gives people a greater understanding of their condition. As the internet continues to transform social interaction, social media will clearly come to have an even bigger impact on how people exchange health information and education.