Using social media for long term conditions

Published February 26, 2018 at 0:01

A 2011 report from Susannah Fox from Pew Internet on Peer to Peer Healthcare surveyed people with chronic health conditions on their use of social media. The most striking finding of the national survey was the extent of peer‐to‐peer help among people living with chronic conditions. One in four internet users living with high blood pressure, diabetes, heart conditions, lung conditions, cancer, or some other chronic ailment (23%) said they have gone online to find others with similar health concerns. By contrast, 15% of internet users who report no chronic conditions have sought such help online. Other groups who were likely to look online for people who share their same health concerns included: internet users who are caring for a loved one; internet users who experienced a medical crisis in the past year; and internet users who have experienced a significant change in their physical health, such as weight loss or gain, pregnancy, or quitting smoking.

This presents a challenge for the NHS. By ignoring the online health discussions the health system runs the risk of allowing well meaning but unqualified amateurs to offer health advice. This can be seen in the snapshot from a popular asthma group below….

The group member asks a perfectly valid medical question – but one which should be directed at someone with a medical background rather than a Facebook ‘friend’. In this instance, the answers were sensible and directed the individual to the NHS Choices website but there are examples out there of people offering unqualified advice.

Not only might this poor advice result in increased demand being placed on an already stretched system but presents a risk of malicious interference or be used by people wishing to sell unlicensed medical products such as diet pills or herbal remedies. The flip side of this is these patient-led community groups offer a powerful peer to peer support network where patients provide real life commentary on their experiences for the benefit of others. A great example of this is the ‘Living with anxiety’ Facebook group where people post personal video clips explaining the nature of their anxiety as well as how they manage it. This groups operates in much the same way as a therapy group where people offer their own experiences. These powerful pen pictures of their anxiety provide reassurance to others in the group that they are not alone. Some of these groups are international, others operate within the geography of a hospital footprint. Either way, they can offer a powerful method of supporting people with health concerns in the comfort of their home.