Chart showing how Americans got their health information in 2008: at the top, 59% on the Internet and 55% with a Doctor

Women’s health, social media, and new filters of information

On Wednesday I attended a grand round on strategic use of social media to improve women’s health by Neel Shah, MD, resident at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and founder and executive director of Costs of Care, a nonprofit aimed at helping doctors understand how the decisions they make impact what patients pay.

In front of an audience packed with Obstetrics and Gynecology doctors (OBGYN), Shah provided a primer on the Internet and social media, citing the cases of the Gardasil facebook page with more than 100,000 fans, and that of Twitter, which is now the top referral website for the New York Times and averages roughly 750 tweets per second.

Observing that the internet has become the primary source of health information to many in the U.S., he highlighted several initiatives, from the newly unveiled Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media to networking sites like Sermo (with more than 115,000 MDs members compared to a dwindling membership at the American Medical Association – the only figure I could find – 240,000 is in Wikipedia…) and Patientslikeme which counts more than 77,000 patients signed-up and sells de-identified data to make a living.

He also talked about doctors doing social media like Kevin Pho’s blog (interestingly enough Pho recently posted a piece on twitter and mobile applications for lifestyle changes), and “connected the dots” with the social network theory and how social ties can influence obesity rates (The Spread of Obesity in a Large Social Network over 32 Years. Nicholas A. Christakis, M.D., Ph.D., M.P.H., and James H. Fowler, Ph.D. N Engl J Med 2007; 357:370-379. full text).

Still, why women health and social media? First, women are slightly more engaged in social networking: 54% female vs. 46% male users in 2009 (the reverse of 2005) according to The Pew Internet & American Life Project. Second, looking at social networks and health outcomes in multiple papers, he noted that women’s health seems to be more affected by social ties than that of men – especially Berkman and Syme. Am. J. Epidemiol. (1979) 109(2): 186-204. closed-access).

An OB-GYN in attendance commented that she was wary of using social media because of privacy issues, but also because of the misinformation raised. “It seems like good experiences are rarely shared but bad experiences always end up on the web and are transformed,” she noted.

Shah replied that, although time consuming, this was exactly the responsibility of doctors in social media: to act as “filters of information,” just like Pho (in tech/pr linguo one now hears of “content curator”). “Social media is here to stay, the question for doctors is how and when to engage in it,” he concluded.


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