The confluence of social media and medicine has many benefits. In fact, the medical community has been able to take advantage of the power of the diverse and cohesive online community that has formed around social media websites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to propel medical interests forward. These medical communities include an array of doctors, relief workers, patients, and advocates who would otherwise be inaccessible if the success of social networking websites had been more limited. The reciprocal impact of social media on medicine is a new phenomenon with far-reaching implications for disaster relief efforts, disease advocacy, and epidemiology.
The devastating magnitude 7.0 earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010 left the country in ruins: collapsed buildings, separated families, and unsanitary conditions remained in the wake of the disaster, posing significant challenges to survivors and aid workers. In the race to provide relief, organizations mobilized to provide food, shelter, water, and medical supplies to families in need. Foreign aid immediately poured into Haiti to provide necessities, and there was a sustained effort to help rebuild infrastructure.
The world received its first glimpse of the destruction not through traditional media outlets, but through social media sites. Images of the devastation, taken by camera phones and uploaded to the Internet, reached millions of viewers and focused attention on the victims of the quake. Instead of relying primarily on news organizations for the latest information, people logged onto websites where they were able to see the effects of the earthquake through first-hand accounts.Eight days after the earthquake, Oxfam International managed to raise $110,000 through Facebook in its hugely successful “Help Earthquake Survivors in Haiti Cause.” Oxfam also used Twitter to spread awareness and raise funds for emergency relief efforts. These successful fundraisers took advantage of the extensive following on Facebook and the ability to “re-tweet” information on Twitter.
Management Sciences for Health (MSH), a nonprofit international health organization, benefitted from the use of social media tools during the earthquake as well. “During the Haiti earthquake, MSH also utilized Twitter and Facebook to try and communicate with and locate missing staff members. Luckily all staff were eventually accounted for,” said Dr. Jonathan Quick, President and CEO of MSH, to the HCGHR.
“MSH relies on social media to educate – in real-time – evidence-informed health practices to a wide audience. We tweet about field reports, new tools and about innovative ideas discussed at conferences or symposiums that we attend. ‘Go to the people’ is a core value of our mission – since many of the world’s people are active in social media and get information via mobile phones, social media is another element of going to and reaching people where they are. By using social media, MSH increases its global health impact,” said Quick.
Social networking can also help bring resources to impoverished areas. Tom Vanderwell, in his blog for the Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media, shared a story of how Facebook brought an orphanage in Haiti in need of a particular medicine to the attention of the Chief Medical Officer for a regional health center. The need was noticed by a friend-of-a-friend and the situation was remedied; the children of the orphanage were able to receive proper medical care. Accordingly, social media is an effective and efficient way to bridge the gap between the needs of impoverished areas and the resources of professionals around the globe. Vanderwell believes that “lives will be saved because of Facebook.”
In addition to assisting with disaster relief and resource scarcity, social networking can prove useful for combating chronic diseases. According to the National Institutes of Aging, there are as many as 5.1 million Americans with Alzheimer’s disease. Experts say that it’s likely that we will see an increase in prevalence of the disease over the next few decades as advancements in medical technology extend average life expectancies. In order to tackle this global issue, the public must be made aware of the devastating impact Alzheimer’s disease has on individuals and their families, the increasing prevalence of the disease, and the hope that exists because of the ability of the community to effect change collectively.
When a loved one is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, a supportive community can help someone understand the progression of the disease and ways to handle it. The Alzheimer’s Society educates a wide audience through its YouTube channel with videos like “Living with Dementia” and “Caring for a Person with Dementia.”
In addition to education, another vital component of tackling this disease is advocacy. On the Alzheimer’s Association website, for instance, it is recommended that people use Facebook applications such as “Fundraise with Facebook” to raise money for care and research. Members can also exchange personal experiences through Facebook’s “Share Your Story” feature.
Not only can social media provide caring communities, but it can also assist epidemiologists in studying disease trends. One such instance of this is the tracking of dengue fever in Brazil by scientists at the Brazilian National Institutes of Science and Technology using information posted by the nation’s Twitter users. The project’s software identifies key words in tweets, such as “dengue” and symptoms like “bone pain” and “eye pain,” and subsequently matches the origins of these key words to specific locations.
It was tested on 2447 tweets between January and May 2009, showing a strong correlation with data from the Brazilian Ministry of Health. Such valuable information can be used to conduct a real-time surveillance of outbreaks and potentially launch preemptive public health measures to prevent their spread.
Over the past few decades, social media has considerably extended the scope of medicine for better disaster relief and medical treatment in the global community. As our technological capabilities expand, there is no doubt that it will become a potent tool for healthcare in the decades to come.