Can Social Networking On The Internet Improve Your Health

We have all heard the term Web 2.0. It refers to a second generation of websites and activities mainly involving social networking websites like MySpace and FaceBook. A related recent term is Health 2.0 which is the use of Web 2.0 methods for healthcare. There has already been one excellent Health 2.0 conference that was widely attended by industry, health providers and some patients, and another such conference is occurring soon in San Francisco. The whole concept of Health 2.0 and the use of social networking sites in healthcare is starting to gain momentum, and the increase in interest in what is being called "participatory medicine", where patients and health providers collaborate more equally than in the past, is likely to give it more of a boost.

Much of the history of these types of initiatives can be traced back to Dr Tom Ferguson, who was a giant of the early years of the Internet. He encouraged doctors to collaborate with patients and supported patients finding out as much as they could about their illness using any means, but particularly the internet. I can well remember sitting in the audience listening to one of his lectures delivered in a charismatic manner and becoming convinced overnight of the importance of his message. He also predicted the Internet's potential to disseminate health information and was an early proponent of its use, terming laymen who did so "e-patients." He classified doctors consultation styles on the net into two types. He talked about Type 1 doctors who he describes as "advisors, coaches and information providers" but who specifically do not attempt to diagnose or treat. He defined type 2 doctors, the majority of medical providers on the net as doctors like me, who provide normal face to face care, and who encourage their patients to also use email to contact them directly. This he saw as a rational and sensible use of new technologies which, as long as guidelines for Internet consultations are followed, is a great way of working for both patient and doctor.

My view is that full time Internet health services and providers will become more common in the next few years, particularly as we move to being able to use secure video systems over the Internet. I predict that eventually as many as 10-20% of all health consultations will take place in cyberspace within 10 years or so, although the traditional face to face consultation will still remain the gold standard. This will be a real revolution in healthcare.

I do think that the emergence of online doctors who are prepared to treat their patients in a collaborative manner, both face to face and online, is the way of the future. The question is, how will this happen, and can it happen via social networking sites on the internet? I think this will be perfectly possible. There is no reason, for example, why groups of patients, along with their doctors, could not sign up for a "closed" social networking site that focused on their particular chronic disease, say diabetes, heart disease or depression. The social networking site could allow all patients to access many different doctors for advice and health education, and could be supplemented by educational information recommended by both doctors and patients who are members of the site. This is effectively the same as facebook, where "friends" are accepted into a social networking group, and not just anyone can join. The disease focused networking site, and all its activities, would occur as an adjunct to the patients having their own individual continuing doctor-patient relationships with their usual doctor, whether this relationship be face to face and/or online. I think it is time for some research in this area to see if this combination of conventional care, and social networking support, can actually improve patient outcomes in the long term. My bet is that it would.

By: Peter Yellowlees