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Health Gets Social in 2010

stephens-dean
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The health care reform bill has provided a new opportunity for all kinds of health organizations to improve communication and outreach to patients. While 2010 was just the starting point, the legislation will impact all facets of the industry, with more than 30 million people in the U.S. given access to health care outside of our hospital emergency rooms.

As this reform takes shape, the online search industry will discover opportunities to impact not just access to health care services but cost and quality dimensions as well. And in the coming year, the role of social media in search results across these three dimensions will influence how health organizations attract and treat patients.

Access

Search has long been the entry point to the Internet and most of the services that consumers can access online, and in the last year, social media has taken a central role in helping people find and obtain the right resources.

Multiple platforms combine social media and search, creating a new distribution channel to speed the flow of information to consumers -- and both are imperative in providing a great health care experience online. Where social media may house the relational links and content, search provides access to that experience.

Traditionally, health care recommendations have been based on word-of-mouth. Access to health care information centered on our friends and family network; we relied on our mothers, family caregivers, and friends to provide care and health recommendations.

This tradition of word-of-mouth health care has driven people to leverage the same trusted associations online as well. Today, people live further from home, and are more isolated from friends and family when managing health issues.

Social media creates a new "friends and family network," creating an "extended friends unit" and expanded relationships that provide consumers with even more access and information than ever before.

In 2011, social media will bring some help to the set of challenges the health care reform will bring, including the inevitable primary care and specialty doctor shortages that may hinder access in some parts of the country. The American Academy of Family Physicians now predicts that America will be 40,000 primary care doctors short by 2020.

Social media-based search will help people identify alternatives through "network" referrals; already there are a host of search-based applications that can help you do this such as Healthline.com's DocSearch. These channels can help alleviate the strain on our health care system by providing answers to common questions and access to doctors or their alternatives, such as physician assistants and nurse practitioners, and at different locations such as retail-based clinics and clinics on wheels.

Quality

Does leveraging the Internet instead of always relying on a one-on-one interaction sacrifice quality of the health care we receive? Quite the contrary.

Quality in health care means different things in different contexts, and to different people, and it doesn't always relate back to the actual services provided to a patient.

Today, we know that doctors are short on time and long on demands, and patients can no longer (and maybe never could) afford to waste time in an office visit starting from ground zero with an initial evaluation -- only to return days later to dig deeper.

Moreover, patients are hesitant to ask the doctor such basic questions as "Who's the best provider for my condition? What are my treatment path alternatives? How does my health background and personal preferences influence how the prescribed medication(s) affect me?"

Patients will need to be prepared to ensure a quality cost-effective visit with their providers by leveraging their own "self-care" that the Internet provides. Instead of spending the majority of one's visit discussing basic problems and needs -- only to leave the office with a host of new questions and concerns -- social media will enable patients to come to the doctor prepared and educated on their condition or ailment.

Within social media, questions and answers can be posted and distributed to the entire community in one fell swoop -- taking health care from a one-to-one experience to a "one-to-thousands" experience. And, while the infinite amount of information on the Internet gives new meaning to the phrase "check your source," patients are able to then leverage their personal physician's insight and expertise and their own knowledge to get the most relevant information for their personal condition.

The end result we hope to see in 2011? A quality dialogue between patient and doctor, a lightened load on our system, and an informed patient who is a party to his or her own personal health outcomes.

Websites such as Organized Wisdom, MedHelp, and the newly launched Sharecare are focused on providing answers to specific health questions.

One question I often receive is "how do patients know where to start when searching on their condition?" Here's where the cross section of social media and search becomes even more important.

The search box can often be an intimidating place for people just looking to start the information quest on their particular ailment or condition. When searching for a common symptom, search engines like Google or Bing don't tell you what the best result is for you, and the list of results is often too long to comb through.

Additionally, the automated algorithms relied on by search engines enable companies to manipulate their ranking through search engine marketing. This means that the most marketed result may come up first, rather than the most accurate.

Next year, the use of "smart answers" will become more prevalent, as social media channels like Facebook and Twitter are gaining traction within the health care community because of the framework they provide in guiding search queries and information retrieval. We're seeing a rise of health tips on these social channels, like the "Top 10 Paths to Better Sleep Health" or the "Top 10 Allergy Triggers," being distributed quickly and widely. Social media helps to filter out the inaccurate data, an issue only magnified when it comes to health information.

Social media will also contribute to better personalized health. With many search engines it also becomes difficult to find information personalized to small subsets of the population, and social media is helping people with the same condition connect and share stories, experiences and recommendations. These trends are leading consumers to social media channels more often, where they get valued information from friends or associates, who may have a more informed understanding of what is right for their needs.

Cost

We all know that health care comes with a big price tag, particularly as the number of Americans with chronic disease grows.

Expanded access to health care services will also increase pressure to contain overall health care costs. Health care reform is betting that increased provider and health plan competition and accountability combined with new cost control regulations will improve the overall cost equation.

This bet has a lot of risk. The risk can be reduced by having health care professionals and patients actively discuss cost effective treatment options. Advances in searching for trends across the vast social media content world may be the tool for improving doctor /patient dialogue on cost.

Health content in social media has reached 10 billion pages, and is increasing at a rate of 40 percent per year. Companies such as First Life Research, in collaboration with Healthline, are mining this vast reservoir of knowledge to determine drug effectiveness.

What's Coming?

As patients become better informed through social interactions online in the coming year, they should make better informed, most cost-effective decisions. Social channels are increasingly becoming a support system for people with like conditions, and providers and insurance companies will begin to join specific groups to pitch their services or products, and offer themselves as an authority on the topic to help in the dialogue.

Smart providers will figure out how to leverage social media to educate and influence patients in order to improve patient satisfaction and outcomes.

The Internet has become a beacon of information and influence: the good and the not so good. And, while misinformation may be prevalent online, social media has provided a new forum for patients and providers alike to look to friends and family to unearth the best information and weed out the worst.

In 2011, we need to embrace these information channels to provide the best, most relevant, and most accurate information, and encourage patients to embrace their health and personal health outcomes.

After all, with access to both health care and information on the rise, shouldn't we try to get healthy by getting more social?


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