Health Apps, Social Diseases and Social Media

A summary highlighting E. Santoro's presentation at Frontiers of Interaction

by Gabriele Sabatino

Health Apps, Social Diseases and Social Media
Health Apps, Social Diseases and Social Media

Social media and applications for smartphones are changing the way people interact with the healthcare system and the public administration in general.
The topic was addressed by Eugenio Santoro, Head of the Laboratory of Medical Informatics at IRCCS, the Mario Negri Institute for Pharmacological Research in Milan, during the workshop “Health Apps, Social Diseases and Social Media” held at Frontiers of Interaction 2015.

The use of digital in the Health sector is an acknowledged trend. But nowadays there is scientific evidence from blind and/or randomized trials showing the benefits of the use of social networks and smartphones in the management of health.
For example, in a campaign for organ donation through Facebook, the number of donors increased by 21.1 times.
Another case is that of a weight-loss program for patients with diabetes, in which a greater reduction in weight (on average, 4 kg more at 6 months) was shown to be due to a specific app. But there is evidence also for actions aimed at HIV prevention, smoking cessation, and physical activity.

What is the situation in Italy? Despite the fact that the diffusion of digital devices and social media is now a fact for people and patients, in Italy these tools are still underused in promoting health and prevention.
Dr. Santoro says that currently in Italy there is a lack of awareness on the use of new technologies: apps are launched without questioning if they are viable and truly of help. To avoid apps being used only because of a trend, they should be introduced in a healthcare path, after being proved effective in reducing specific risks or diseases.
Moreover, in Italy there are few care facilities that take advantage of the use of social networks in addition to their company website. “When you decide to be in social networks you must also be willing to answer who asks you questions. Right now, I think the exchange of opinions is something that frightens most of the decision makers,” says Santoro.

What will the Italian scenario be in the coming years? As in other areas, it may be useful to take a look at what happens in the U.S. because the findings are striking:

  • The National Cancer Institute has 4 separate Facebook pages, 27 dedicated Twitter profiles, 6 Linkedin groups and 1 corporate website.
  • There are 1,500 hospitals in the U.S. that have an active digital channel, and 1.3m followers on Twitter and 750,000 Facebook “likes.”
  • Medical conferences all have live Twitter coverage and reach up to 30,000 Tweets per conference.
  • Sermo is a social network that has no less than 150,000 doctors participating actively in the discussions.

It is in this setting that pharmaceutical companies are moving, with much difficulty. Half of the top 50 of them are not active in social networks, and have no active program aimed at engaging patients.
The pharmaceutical companies that have the highest level of engagement with patients are the smaller ones, focusing on special therapeutic areas and from which particularly interesting case histories have come out.

The main problem is that many pharmaceutical companies preclude the ability for users to comment or to share their content with them, with the result of having a one-way communication, in stark contrast with what the essence of social media is. The obstacle is dictated by an increased risk in vulnerability, both from the point of view of privacy and of perception.

Much remains to be done, but for this very reason there are now huge opportunities for companies to expand their pool of clients/users, strengthening the relationship with them and at the same time making their brand stronger.

The key to the construction of an engaging, effective and interesting social strategy lies in the management of user feedback and the opportunity for users to give account of their own experiences to other patients, doctors, nurses, pharmacists and healthcare providers in general. But doing this requires expertise and careful planning, including a detailed crisis management plan and complying with all legal and regulatory constraints, which are complex, ever-changing and varying from country to country.

This is one of the articles of the Healthcare transformation booklet inspired by the FrontiersX Conference, that will be published very soon. Stay tuned!

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