Friday, January 08, 2010

Do Social Media Apps Improve Health Care?

Sometimes evangelists get carried away. That may be stating the obvious, obviously. But often we do not realize this when we listen to evangelists. You only need to look at the presenters at the November, 2009, FDA hearings on the Internet to see social media evangelists in full regalia (see "Industry Groups will Eat Consumer Advocates' Lunch at FDA Social Media Public Hearing").

Not that there's anything wrong with evangelism per se. But sometimes pharma/healthcare social media evangelists get carried away. Today, for example, there was a discussion in the #hcsmeu Twitter group (see discussion topics here) about Web 2.0 changing the delivery of health care. The discussion soon morphed into declarations that social media improved health care.

This belief that Web 2.0 can improve health care was also the subtext of many presentations at the FDA hearings. I could see the FDA people scratching their heads because little actual evidence to support that idea was presented. Sure, there was evidence that consumers used the Internet to find health information. But there was no evidence that Web 2.0/social media tools actually improved health outcomes. If there is any evidence of this, I'd like to see it.

Let's get back, however, to the delivery of health care rather than the improvement of health care. The two are not equivalent nor mutually exclusive. You can, after all, have efficient delivery of bad health care! In fact, the pharmaceutical industry argues that if it weren't for them, social media would actually enhance the delivery of bad healthcare information (and by faulty logic extension, bad health outcomes).

The point I am making is that when we speak of the benefits of social media in the healthcare arena, we need to back up our beliefs with scientific evidence, especially if we are trying to make a point with the FDA.

Next week, I will be interviewing C. Peter Waegmann, Vice President of mHealth Initiative Inc., about the potential impact of moblie phone applications on the transformation of health care (see "How Will mHealth Change Healthcare?"). Mobile apps are in the same category as are Web 2.0 apps -- an advanced electronic information delivery device. But Mobile is like Web 2.0 on steroids -- your mobile device knows where you are, can take a picture of your bumps and bruises, listen to your heatbeat, and soon, maybe even measure your blood pressure! It's definitely a contender for improving healthcare delivery, maybe even improving health outcomes.

But I am not the evangelist; that would be Peter, who is an international leader in health informatics with a special interest in electronic patient record systems, standards, networking, mHealth, and the creation of the national information infrastructure.

What's Your Opinion About Branded Patient Support via Twitter?

This survey asks how effective Twitter can be in carrying out each of the following patient support activities/communications:
  • Drug/device safety alerts (eg, drug recalls, medical device malfunctions, emerging safety issues)
  • Prescription management, including pharmacy refill reminders
  • Daily health tips from authoritative sources
  • Publishing disease-specific tips
  • Clinical trial awareness & recruitment
  • Enhancing health-related support groups (e.g. buddy-systems for depression)
  • Providing around-the-clock disease management
  • Patient-sharing of health-related experiences
  • Issuing dietary/lifestyle tips
  • Delivering adherence and compliance messages
Take the Survey

Please take 2 minutes to answer this survey about how effective Twitter can be in carrying patient support activities/communications. Take the survey here.

You will be able to see a summary of up-to-date de-identified results upon completion of the survey.

Results of this survey may be summarized in an issue of Pharma Marketing News.

Your comments are confidential (anonymous) unless you specifically provide your contact information at the end of the survey and allow us to attribute comments to you personally.


  1. Good points, John. But let's remember that enthusiasm outstripping evidence is hardly limited to those evangelizing about how web 2.0 or mobile apps can, will or actually are improving health care. How about whether traditional CME demonstrably improves patient outcomes. Or how traditional peer review demonstrably improves the quality of published research. Or whether EMRs/EHRs save money. There's a long list, no?

  2. Bill,

    Thanks for your comments. Since the activities on your list have been around for quite some time, I am sure there is some scientific evidence that either does or does not find evidence of the effectiveness of those activities. I believe, however, that social media is yet too new to have accumulated similar studies.

  3. Hey John,

    I agree fully that at this point enthusiasm is outstripping evidence with regards to whether or not social media sites and services can generate clinically relevant improvements in health outcomes.

    However, some of those optimists - myself included - are building social networking tools like specifically designed in an attempt to test that hypothesis by supporting wellness-oriented, individual daily decision making in the hopes that we'll demonstrate a small change in 'microbehaviors.'

    Put a short blog post up here:

    But please check out the platform at You can check activity on Twitter by searching for the hashtag #getupandmove. Please note our users, "guammies," have extremely granular permissions over the sharing of their information - to start, they have the option to make profiles public or private.

    My public profile is here:

    In addition, users can hide EACH specific challenge.

    We're building the platform's additional features in anticipation of protecting privacy and personal information to a level that will be comparable with other online personal health information services.

    It's very early days yet, you're right - but please be assured some of us wild-eyed enthusiasts are looking harder for evidence than we are for pop-culture emphasis on the latest gadget or fad.

  4. Anonymous6:40 AM

    There is yet an additional demographic point to be considered. Health care (and pharmaceutical) usage is concentrated among a relatively small percentage of the population (roughly 5% of us use about 50% of all health care resources, while 50% of the population use essentially none at all). Who are those "power users" of care? Disproportionally, they are older, less educated and poorer members of our society. They are also the least likely to be computer-savvy or internet enabled. Only half of all people over the age of 65 have any computer skills at all, and even among the Boomers, one-third are still not connected. Folks suffering from chronic disease (who consume over 70% of all health care dollars in this country)are also twice as likely as the average American to have less than a high school education.

    Clearly there are a lot of mobile internet devices in use and plenty to Twittering going on. Unfortunately, that's a lot less common among folks who these new technology solutions would need to reach if they're actually going to improve health care.

    Technology certainly has a place in improving the efficiency and effectiveness of health care, but the best applications for now are on the supply-side. Getting doctors "wired" with electronic health records and building health information exchanges will do much more at this point to improve the quality of health care than anything happening on the demand/consumer side of the equation.

  5. Nice article, I especially agree with the point that the strong regulatory nature of the pharmaceutical industry means that they are stopping the amount of bad healthcare information. Do you not agree though that if used properly and in a sensible fashion, social media tools could be hugely beneficial for asking and answering questions about whatever the condition may be whilst remaining anonomous. Anonymity is the one thing people with various medical conditions strive for (to save often embarassing moments of revelation) and the internet is the home of the secret? I think that there is a need to raise awareness amongst industry professionals to fully understand the powers social networking and when that is done I think it could be as big of a development for healthcare as anything before.

  6. I believe, as do many of my colleagues, that patients benefit greatly when they share information about medical conditions whether online or off, anonymously or not. What I do not KNOW is how much of an effect this has on improving health outcomes among a population that is heavily involved in social media.

    Take the ACOR online cancer community for example. I spoke to Gilles Frydman about ACOR in this podcast:

    Gilles cites ACOR as anecdotal evidence that social media helps patients make healthcare decisions mostly based on testimonials from ACOR members.

    I'd like to see more quantitative evidence first about how social media affects people's healthcare decisions and whether or not thise decisions resulted in better outcomes. We could, for example, survey ACOR members to get a better idea.

    Have you seen such surveys?

    The results may not be scientific, but are at least one step better than a few testimonials.

  7. I subscribe to what John has said, Social Media Networking has a great influence over our modern society, it`s a great way to inform, keep informed, manipulate. I think Social Media had a great influenced over self-development which implies health care also

  8. Hi,

    This is the assistant editor for which is a medical publication offering hospital news, information and reviews. We also cover a wide variety of medical topics, some of these articles being relevant to Health Care reform as you will see from the homepage of our site. We are in the process of updating our health care news section with dozens of articles on the reform and other relevant issues. If possible I would like to be included within your blog roll, offering our information as a resource to your readers and essentially building a relationship between our sites. Please let me know if this addition can be made, Thanks!

    Please email me back with your URL in subject line to take a step ahead and to avoid spam.

    Thank you
    Mary Miller,

  9. I do agree with John about patients talking to each other irrespective of whether they are online or offline. In fact many patients value the opinion of other patients more than that of their physician's. However, this doesn't prove that Social Media has any effect in improving the health outcomes.

    A meaningful survey to find out the effectiveness of social media should have following 3 components:
    1. Did Social Media help a patient to make their health care decision and did they act on that decision.
    2. (As John mentioned above) Did this decision improved/worsen their health condition.
    3. To what extent do they hold Social Media responsible for their improved/worsen health condition. Will they recommend other patients to use/stay away from Social Media in helping them to make decisions

  10. Hello Mr.John,

    Yes, I do agree with you that the social media application helps to improve Health care.


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