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Health care panelists see good, bad in “Internet jungle” of social media

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While  the Internet, and social media in particular, may present some challenges, the technology has definitely changed the face of health care and that’s not such a bad thing, said panelists at an event Wednesday night in Philadelphia co-sponsored by Web search firm wool.labs and SmartBrief.

While some panelists said they were concerned by people finding information about health conditions, medications and treatments on what panelist Virginia Harris called the “Internet jungle” — most of the panel agreed that social media is an important tool that makes consumers more informed, if not more opinionated, before they see their doctor.

Keynote speaker Amy Kovach, a breast cancer survivor, talked about how has served as one positive model for how online forums can provide an invaluable service to those seeking both information and camaraderie they can often find nowhere else.

“It’s a very intimate, connected and bonded group,” she said, relaying a story of how when a member dies, fellow supporters will send roses to the funeral, often hearing from the family about how invaluable their support was during the cancer battle. “These are not weak ties. This is a phenomenon … that I don’t think society has truly comes to grips with yet.”

“It really has reshaped and changed the way patients manage their health issues.”

And though the threat of misinformation is always out there, said Healthy Humans CEO Anthony Gold, “the cream will always rise to the top.” Gold cited an MIT study in which obscenities were randomly inserted into a select number of Wikipedia entries, only to find that they were removed by fellow users in an average time of just 1.7 minutes.

He and others warned that trying to have the pharmaceutical industry, or the government or doctors, trying to monitor all the chatter to weed out the good information from the bad was not only next to impossible, but also not a productive solution.

“Once you introduce a moderator, there’s self-interest there,” Gold said.

The public realizes this, said WEGO Health vice president for product development Bob Brooks, citing a study that had 64% of people saying they wanted pharmaceutical companies to monitor and correct misinformation about their products on the Internet, with 60% of that same group simultaneously saying such a task was unrealistic in its scope to be able for those companies to undertake effectively.

Doctors are pressed for time and patients have a harder time communicating with their health care providers about their treatment options — compelling them to turn to social media for answers, said RealAge sales vice president Marijo Montgomery.

Montgomery chose not to focus on industry frustration with regulators who are keeping health professionals from being able to reach out to patients directly, but said the industry’s focus should be on finding out why patients stray from doctor-prescribed treatments.

Wool.labs Chief Operating Officer Michele Bennett said for those engaging in social media, the problem isn’t apathy or forgetfulness, but choosing to listen to people other than their doctors — even in situations where it seems irrational.

“There’s a feeling of being let down,” Bennett said, describing online users discussing their health care experiences. “That’s a very consistent trend in what we’ve been seeing.”

Changing that has become the challenge — and not an easy one by any stretch.

“Trust is extremely low with pharmaceutical manufacturers — almost as low as tobacco companies in recent years,” said Drapin CEO Lois Drapin. “We’ve entered into the era of do-it-yourself health care … with this deep-seated individuality in America.

“But when you have a health care decision to make, you do not want to make it by yourself. Social media changes everything in that way — it breaks down walls that have not been broken down before.”

Image credit: szefei, via iStock Photo