These days, particularly in the wake of Facebook's $5 billion S-1 filing, few will argue the explosive impact that social media is having on the way we live. We see it in the way relationships build, the way messages spread, and the tremendous amount of data that’s been assembled about who we are and what we do.
The potential is huge; but until very recently, physicians have been largely unable to take full advantage of what these connections have to offer. Specifically, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996 prevents doctors from using email or text messaging, much less open platforms like Facebook or Twitter, to communicate about patient care without risk of being fined or fired.
Still, opportunities for physician-focused, web-based networks are many, and HIPAA-compliant tools and sites have indeed started to take shape and populate. Healthcare itself has been (often rightly) criticized as slow to change. In fact, Dr. Leslie Saxon recently published an insightful article on why the Internet hasn’t yet had any real impact on how medicine is practiced. But research has shown that as far as technology goes, doctors themselves tend to be early adopters. Having seen the kinds of conversations that have already begun to take place, I strongly believe that the future of digital medicine will be anchored in these kinds of connections.
Think, for example, of the impact of having a rural doctor in Alaska be able to send pictures of a complicated emergency case to a former classmate now working at a stroke center in Boston — and getting real-time feedback. This is where, in my mind, social networking truly goes from entertaining to life-changing.
With physicians connecting in real time across specialties and beyond the traditional bounds of hospital walls, patients may soon be able to stop worrying about getting access to the right specialist. Medicine’s brightest minds will be accessible from the remotest spots — on an airplane, at an underserved clinic, or in the thick of a disaster zone. Soon, any doctor with a mobile device will have the resources and reach to pull together a personalized, patient-specific team of experts for any given case. Sometimes, it will take as little as a question to the right expert in a sub-specialty to change the course of treatment for the better. In other instances, more lasting and meaningful collaborations might take shape.
Information itself is poised to travel differently, too. Facebook and Twitter are already showing us how effectively networked communities can transmit important data, and even bring obscure new ideas to the forefront of cultural debate. For doctors, who have historically relied heavily on sifting through a surfeit of medical journals, this kind of hive-minding can help ensure that the most promising and thought-provoking research or techniques rise to the surface and reach a wider audience. Moreover, by posting, sharing, and commenting on articles and cases within their professional networks, physicians will become more active and engaged participants in the future of medical research and learning.
The existence of these large and overlapping communities of doctors promises to tap a goldmine of public health data. Using discussion threads about symptoms and outbreaks, the spread of infectious disease can be tracked automatically, as can the efficacy and speed of treatment plans. Complications of new therapies, previously unknown risk factors for common diseases, even entirely new disease entities may be identified from increased sharing of data that has until now lived in the filing cabinets and memories of individual physicians.
The social power of networks like Facebook and Twitter to connect, entertain, and enrich our lives is undeniable. It’s time to extend the networking paradigm to healthcare and reap an even more substantive set of rewards.