Synergistic Impacts of Healthcare and Social Media: An Observational Study

Source: David Lee Scher, MD

There have been many articles written on the impact of social media on healthcare. Likewise, healthcare is transforming social media into a ‘place’ to obtain information on specific diseases, creating patient and provider support in online communities like PatientsLikeMe and Treatment Diaries, and improving communication among providers and between providers and patients. A truly interesting report released today highlights the interplay between social media and healthcare. It shows how topics in medicine both determine and are driven by social discourse and not only who is talking about what and when, but in what context. This might seem like big Brother, but it’s not. People are in social media not only voluntarily, but enthusiastically, in order to connect, share, and learn. Decide for yourself how powerful and potentially beneficial social media is after reading this post. This report, The Social Oncology Project, written by WCG, an independent strategic communications firm, was furnished to me just prior to its release. I have no commercial interests in the company (or others mentioned above). I will highlight five of the salient observations of the report which focuses on cancer.

1. “It’s clear that the fodder for online discussion remains driven by the experiences of people, not data. Social media in cancer is firmly rooted in the social.” Though breast cancer is not the leading cause of cancer (lung cancer is by a large margin), it by far generates the most conversations (greater than the other top four causes of cancer combined), news, and blogs. This is a testament to years of public education and awareness campaigns. It was also interesting that cancer in general was discussed more than specific types of cancer.

2. Observations on use of Twitter by physicians about cancer. WCG utilizes a tool which examines Twitter use by physicians matching Twitter handles to NPINs (This could be considered a bit creepy by physicians; However, NPINs are available via Google searches. What if a physician tweets as a ‘civilian’?). Most activity on Twitter by physicians regarding cancer is by non-oncologists. Most tweets discuss preventive measures and not specific cancer types. “Prevention and awareness made up a majority of tweets in most areas, but the proportion of other topics varied. In lung cancer, 32 percent of tweets were about treatment and 17 percent were about diagnostics or were far more likely to discuss diagnostics (47 percent) than treatment (6 percent)… cancer issues dominate the list of most-mentioned topics among the more than 2 million tweets that have been indexed in the database. Skin cancer, prostate cancer and breast cancer respectively, make up the fourth-, fifth- and sixth-most common diseases and conditions discussed by doctors; only diabetes, flu and stroke have been mentioned more.” An interesting observation is that oncologists, though comprising a smaller proportion of physicians, tweet more frequently (2.6 tweets/day vs. 0.72 for dermatologists, 1.68 for family physicians, 1.82 for cardiologists and 1.94 for psychiatrists). The study also discusses social media at the ASCO (American Society of Clinical Oncology) meeting and the role of social media in oncology practices.

3. Social Media is becoming a significant tool for patient advocates. Though the American cancer Society and other large organizations avail themselves to the reach of social media, the power lies in the ability of smaller groups to become more effective. The study describes the #bcsm (breast cancer social media) group on Twitter, and the use of social media for crowdfunding for organizations and research efforts

4. Social media is a potential source of pharmaceutical market research. Though not the rigorous prescription—based data that the pharmaceutical industry is used to, social media is a fertile source of information. “We examined the mentions of the 10 best-selling medications used to treat cancer in 2012, looking at what drugs were being discussed, where they were being discussed and comparing sales to online conversations. The analysis found that, in general, volume of online conversations tracked with overall sales; As sales went up, so did conversations.” One exception noted was Rituxan. “While conversation volume was high (only Avastin and Herceptin generated more online hits), it was not as high as may have been suggested by sales.” This might have been due to the fact that it is prescribed for non-cancer uses as well. Nevertheless, this early observational data is interesting and has potential marketing implications.

5. Awareness months and stories about celebrities drive significant increases in social media discussions. These observations illustrate the power of social media campaigns. Grass roots efforts in social media have been effective in political battles for years now, and mastered by the Obama campaigns. Initiatives in healthcare need to harness the power of online communities and advocacy groups to get messages across. Social media is made for preventive health campaigns. Let’s avail ourselves of these great tools, and not fear them.

This report is important because it demonstrates the amount of knowledge gained by the observation of online human interactions. This type of data is a key to designing apps and other digital technologies related to patient and caregiver behaviors and will differentiate the losers from the winners in the mHealth and health IT spaces.