Twittering about Temazepam – Why social networking can affect your Doctor’s health

The UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency recently published a strategy document on how they intend to connect with patients and public bodies.  It’s an eminently sensible thing to do, and when they answered some questions about it they made the equally sensible comment that “these may include using social networking sites, blogs and text messages”.  Rather that concentrating on the good sense of their strategy, that line generated the predictable knee jerk reaction from much of the medical press.  Conservative as ever, they bridled at yet another attempt to let patients and carers take any part in managing their health.  Instead of accepting that there might be something in the announcement, they preferred to puff and pontificate, raking up the standard old muck, such as the claim that 25%of GPs end up treating patients who have bought medicines over the Internet.  You get the impression they’d rather prescribe us a sleeping draught than run the risk that we might spend a waking moment with a web browser.

It’s a shame that this reaction is still so prevalent.  Social networks and the Internet will never be a replacement for medical care, but they have the ability to play a much greater role in how we live and manage disease.  Everyone with an ounce of sense who has looked at the demographics knows that we cannot continue with the current model.  We shouldn’t be pouring scorn on social networking, we should be looking carefully to see how it can help our healthcare experience evolve.

It’s unfortunate that the medical media and those they represent seem to be lining up with the Luddite tendency of populist pundits who equate any form of social networking with teenage time wasting.  The Internet and Mobile Data are with us.  They will change the way that people share and use information.  We don’t yet know where that change will start, nor where it will end, but it’s probably going to be analogous to the changes that came with the progression from monastic scribes to printing.  Social networks give us the tools – it’s up to the users and communities, not the professions, to work out how to use them. 

A good example of the power of users to develop social networks is text messaging.  They found that they could turn a well hidden, engineering feature in the GSM mobile phone specification into a useful tool.  The networks – the professionals in this case, did their best to stop it happening, as they didn’t understand why anyone would want to use it.  They belatedly realised they could make money from it and reluctantly embraced it.  The resulting SMS service is a technology that has already saved millions of pounds for health services by doing something ss simple as sending patient reminders.  We may not be aware what the future developments and benefits may be, but to cultivate a mindset where tweeting equates to birdbrains and bebo appears indistinguishable to buboes is not going to be conducive to progress.

What is important is recognising that the new communication programs and tools that are being developed to enable these new social applications will enable groups of interested individuals to work together to come up with new ideas.  It’s a process that’s well described in Clay Shirky’s excellent book – Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations.  To précis his argument:

“For the last hundred years big organisational tasks have been taken on by the state.  There has been a universal and unspoken supposition that people couldn’t self-assemble; the choice between markets and managed effort assumed that there was no third alternative.  Now there is.

Today’s electronic networks are enabling novel forms of collective action , enabling the creation of collaborative groups that are larger and more distributed than at any time in history.  The scope of work that can be done by non-institutional groups is a profound challenge to the status quo.”

And that’s why we shouldn’t dismiss initiatives like this.  We shouldn’t jump onto every bandwagon that comes along just because it’s new, but we shouldn’t close our minds to them just because they’re adopted by a different generation. 

It’s not just the UK that has this problem.  In the run-up to the Health 2.0 Conference in Boston this week, Bob Mayes – Senior Advisor on Health Information Technology Issues to AHRQ, warns of the danger of older doctors stifling innovation in the US Health grant system. 

It’s important that we don’t embrace this backward looking attitudes.  Our current model of healthcare needs to be challenged, because it is not sustainable.  The tools that are being developed within the social networking community may be one of best hopes we have for starting that reform.  Let us explore how best to use them, not dismiss them out of hand as a pre-judged waste of time.