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Social Networks Like Facebook Could Improve Health Care


It is time to harness the power of social networks and other online communities to help deliver better health care, reduce health care costs, and empower patients. That is the message from the authors of a new study, which explains an approach to improve health care utilizing Facebook and other social networking services.

Some activity in this direction is already taking place, although perhaps more serendipitously, with Facebook webpages for various chronic diseases. The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, for example, recently announced that its Facebook page had 60,000 fans, twice the number of people who even have the disease. Increased traffic can translate into increased opportunities for patients and their families to communicate with others, stay up to date on the latest information and research, and help raise awareness of the disease.

Another Facebook phenomenon occurred when female users began posting the colors of their bras on the social network site. This prompted a deluge of attention to breast cancer websites, which reported a great increase in traffic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) even got into the act when it turned to Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites to encourage people to get their H1N1 vaccine.

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The authors of the new study explain that health care and quality of life can be improved for the growing number of people who have chronic illnesses, such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure, who tap into online communities and other wireless health care services. Participation in such services can reduce the number of healthcare interventions and empower patients to monitor and manage their own health.

In a pilot study, researchers from INET International Inc in Ontario, Canada, showed that patients who had diabetes could successfully use their cell phones to dial in their blood glucose readings and receive feedback from their health care workers. The next step is to take advantage of online communities and social networks such as Facebook and Linked in to help patients with chronic conditions to break out of their isolation and to connect with others.

In the current article by the research team, which appears in the International Journal of Networking and Virtual Organisations, they present a model that involves patients using online social network approach to manage their health care. Using diabetes as an example, the authors note that considering ten percent of every health care dollar spent in the United States goes to diabetes and its complications, using an online system for people with diabetes could significantly cut costs and improve their quality of life.

Nilmini Wickranasinghe, who is working with Steve Goldberg of INET to develop a wireless system that will allow patients with chronic diseases to self-manage their health care, along with Goldberg are “confident that our model is especially important when implementing a technology enable solution to any healthcare context.” A new and critical role for social networks in improving health care may soon be upon us.

International Journal of Networking and Virtual Organisations 2010; 7:581-91