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The Importance of Social Networks in Healthcare

As I type this post, I have my Facebook page open, my Twitter feed rolling, I’m logged into LinkedIn, and my graduate school’s alumni newsletter is in my inbox. These are all considered different social networks, structures of connected individuals, that we take part in several times a day without fully realizing it. But this isn’t just a recent trend with the advent of social media and the rise of technology – social networks have been around in various forms for ages. From tribes to modern day book clubs: human beings have always had a natural desire to insert themselves into a social structure with other people that share common characteristics or interests.

Among the many benefits offered by social networks are safety, socializing, incentive sharing, knowledge dissemination, and facilitation of communication. To the last couple of points, social networks can actually act as a medium through which information is disseminated and messages are communicated. It’s no surprise then that effective health communication can be done through social networks.

On June 11, HC3 hosted its first in a series of quarterly Innovation Webinars, with social networks as the inaugural topic. Panelists included:Sean Mehra, head of product at HealthTap; Dr. Roni Zeiger, CEO of Smart Patients; and, Dr. Anne Moorhead, Lecturer in Health and Interpersonal Communication at the University of Ulster, Northern Ireland, UK. Dr. Marc Boulay, assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and a program evaluation officer at JHU-CCP served as moderator. Participants discussed the theoretical foundation of social networks; for example, what effect can social networks have on health outcomes? Boulay pointed out that social norms that may arise from being a part of social networks can have positive or negative impacts on healthy behaviors. In addition, social support can boost mental health and other health outcomes.

Sean Mehra walked the audience through HealthTap, a site designed to help close the gap between patients and doctors. On average, it takes 20+ days to schedule an appointment with a doctor, get a referral, and see a specialist for a single condition. Also, patients feel as if they do not have enough time with a doctor to ask all of the questions they need. In order to expedite this process and get answers, consumers go online – WebMD and other health sites provide information and offer some support for patients, but it isn’t enough. HealthTap allows patients to directly speak with experienced clinicians and get their answers on health questions. This is an example of a social network that binds two distinct groups of individuals (patients and providers) for information dissemination.

On the other hand, Dr. Roni Zeiger spoke about Smart Patients: an online community for cancer patients and caregivers. Smart Patients helps patients learn about new scientific developments, treatments, and engage in discussions with others familiar with the disease. The main objective is to help patients get informed about their disease and be knowledgeable about their options, thereby taking more control of their health.

The event concluded with a robust Q&A session as audience members asked questions about liability, accreditation and other pressing issues that come with broadening the scope and reach of health services. Social networks have an enormous presence in each of our lives; therefore, it only makes sense that social networks will be applied to the most important aspect of our lives – our health.

Upcoming HC3 Innovation Webinars will feature research methodologies, gaming, and unique campaigns.

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