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Telemedicine and social media intersect to advance population health

More patients want to interact with doctors via social media, which opens new opportunities to treat chronic conditions, reduce unneeded visits.

Beth Jones Sanborn, Managing Editor

Telehealth and social media appear to be on a collision course that could ultimately help physicians drive population health efforts to better manage chronic disease, and reduce readmissions and ER visits for patients who need help managing a health issue.

And as telehealth continues to gain traction and people look for new ways to engage with physicians and their own healthcare, social media seems an obvious channel to enhance these goals. 

Quite often patients have questions following an episode of care that they'd rather not re-enter the in-office patient queue to answer. A quick query made via social media falls in line with the type of consumer-centric approach patients, especially millennials, are seeking. With the consumer power and share of the patient population millennials will occupy in years to come, it is likely social media will occupy at least an ancillary role in healthcare communications considering its popularity among that generation.

The evidence is emerging that social media could play an increasingly important role in the doctor-patient relationship. A new survey, conducted by the Harris Poll on behalf of the American Osteopathic Association, found that more than half of millennials, 54 percent as well as 42 percent of adults, would like to be friends with or follow their healthcare providers on social media. 

The research also found 65 percent and 43 percent of all adults felt it appropriate to contact their physician regarding a health issue via social media, either by posting on their page or direct messaging them. 

Doctors, however, are still fine tuning how to navigate such correspondence and set appropriate guidelines and barriers. 

"Please don't send me a picture of your rash on Facebook Messenger. I want to be an active part of my patient's care, but social media does open up opportunities for over-sharing or providing information that would be best managed in the office setting or through designated telemedical technology," Jennifer Caudle, an osteopathic family physician and associate professor at the Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine told the AOA. 

While health professionals are barred from sharing information over social media that could identify a patient, violating their privacy rights, the AOA said some physicians find social media to be an effective tool for sharing important medical information, especially since young people often don't see a doctor enough.  

But with nearly one-third of Americans, 32 percent, having acted on health information obtained on social media, such as diet changes, exercise, medication or alternative treatments, according to the AOA survey, social media and telehealth could also prove valuable in reducing readmissions. 

By acting as another medium through which patients can access physicians for follow-up advice or care questions stemming from procedures and visits, the technologies could curb potential secondary issues by giving patients the information needed to adjust their own behavior in a timely fashion. The same could be said for the management of chronic disease.

Twitter: @BethJSanborn
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