Could social media be the key to cracking chronic disease?

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Feb 13, 2020

Today more than 50% of American citizens are afflicted with a chronic disease. In addition to the untold suffering that accompanies a long-term battle with poor health, the care for those with chronic diseases continues to be a major driver of our nation’s healthcare costs.

An essential piece of the puzzle is identifying the appropriate business model to treat those with chronic disease. In contrast with acute conditions, chronic conditions require a different nature of care that reflects the difference in time frame: care that’s less transactional and more relationship-based; care that is is not strictly medical but more focused on social, environmental, and behavioral determinants of health. 

In The Innovator’s Prescription, Clayton Christensen explained that facilitated networks— platforms where people exchange products and information from each other—are the ideal business model for managing chronic diseases, particularly ones easily mitigated by behavior changes such as Celiac disease and Type II Diabetes. This is because facilitated networks connect people to “someone like me” from whom they can find both knowledge and support in managing their disease. 

Social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, are the most pervasive examples of facilitated networks in the world today. Their vast reach makes them uniquely poised to gather critical masses of patients for even niche disease populations in which patients were previously isolated or limited to local resources. The platforms allow anyone, from health professionals to patients, to exchange information that may prove helpful for any number of health concerns. As such, we believe social media platforms have a strong role to play as facilitated networks in the overall healthcare system, and particularly in mitigating chronic disease.

Still, we recognize that social media can also contribute in negative ways to the state of healthcare. The fact that social media has been shown to negatively impact a person’s self esteem, increase anxiety levels, and spread health misinformation are important drawbacks  that warrant their own separate conversation. However, in this post we want to focus specifically on the ways social media can be used to positively impact the lives of patients. 

Connection to others 

Social connections play an important role in both physical and mental health. Studies show a range of benefits, from improved mental health and wellbeing for disabled populations, to decreased morbidity and mortality. With social media, those social connections are easier to establish and maintain.

Platforms such as Facebook Groups allow patients to find “someone like me,” an aspect The Innovator’s Prescription emphasizes as crucial to patients with behavior-dependent illnesses. While there are individual websites offering a similar type of connection on a disease-by-disease basis, social media allows people to connect with not only a much broader audience, but it also enables them to participate in multiple chronic illness support groups in one platform. Users can also find groups not just based on disease, but other outside interests, creating social support beyond just talking about disease. There is a comfort in having normal conversations; social media allows that.

Having a supportive online community from which to pull information is beneficial to patients, particularly for those wishing to remain anonymous due to stigma around any specific disease. Additionally, social media allows for constant social support regardless of the time of day and physical location, something in-person communication does not offer. With almost 70% of Americans using Facebook, it makes sense to utilize this platform when seeking social support for illnesses.

Health literacy

Health literacy—the ability to retain and understand enough basic health information to make informed healthcare decisions—strongly impacts a person’s ability to navigate the healthcare system and self-manage illnesses. In a recent blog post, I highlighted how a lack of health literacy discourages use of healthcare services. Patients with poorer health literacy are more likely to experience negative health outcomes, such as a higher rate of hospitalization, and are less likely to have health insurance.

The unique benefit of social media is how easily digestible it makes information. Twitter character limits, for example, require users to make information short, sweet, and to the point. YouTube videos help explain intricate issues of health policy in an easy to understand manner. Even TikTok, a short video platform, plays a role in navigating healthcare; a recent New York Times article highlighted a video helping people to lower their medical bills. 

Additionally, social media lets professionals quickly correct misinformation. An unfortunate aspect of social media is the uncanny ability to have opinion taken as proven fact without any confirmation. Providers and public health agencies can dispel harmful inaccuracies on topics ranging from disease spread to medications by posting on their own pages, or reacting to others’ conversations. 

Population health  

People discuss their health online every day. As more information is shared online, researchers are able to uncover health trends they might not have been aware of, and develop interventions to address them. Privacy issues are a crucial consideration in any discussion of using data for population health. But as use of social media for health purposes increases, steps are being taken to make health data more secure online. 

Social media doesn’t just facilitate the exchange of data with professionals to use in developing population health interventions. It also facilitates the connection between clinical trials and willing participants. This can be particularly meaningful for chronic diseases, many of which do not have a known cause or cure. A study done by the Michael J. Fox Foundation found that using Facebook ads to recruit participants for a trial allowed for the recruitment of a more diverse candidate pool, including those typically underrepresented by studies. By increasing study participation, more accurate and informative findings can be found.

Jessica is a research associate at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, where she focuses on business model innovation in healthcare, including new approaches to population health management and person-centered care delivery.