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For a few years now, people of all ages have looked for health information on the web. They may feel too embarrassed or feel a symptom is too trivial to ask a doctor a question right away, so instead they go online to Google or social media sites with their health and medical questions.

They may Google a frustrating or embarrassing symptom to see what diseases it’s linked with. Or if it’s something not too embarrassing, they may post information about their symptom to Facebook friends, asking for treatment advice or thoughts. If (or, perhaps more accurately, when) patients find unreliable sources, they may begin to feel extremely nervous about their symptoms. After all, who hasn’t Googled a single symptom and then convinced themselves they have some kind of deadly disease?

I know I have, and I’m not alone. About 40 percent of all Americans turn to social media for health information and 61 percent use the internet instead of visiting the doctor, according to Mashable.com.

Right now is the perfect time for medical practitioners to take advantage of this trend. This doesn’t mean doctors will begin spitting on patients’ privacy. Instead, they will be able to interact with patients on the patients’ turf, potentially fielding uneasiness and perhaps helping patients before something wrong goes on too long.

Luckily for patients and practitioners alike, doctors are already increasing use of online and social media tools. According to the Mashable article mentioned above,

“U.S. physicians shows an increase of Internet usage for professional purposes up from 2.5 hours per week in 2002 to 8 hours per week in 2010. More strikingly, while more than 100,000 doctors are using closed social health networks like Sermo.com and publishing in peer-reviewed journals online, thousands of health professionals are now blogging, using Twitter, and connecting with patients on Facebook in very public ways.”

Without a doubt, doctors and medicine practitioners are busy. However, many do not realize social media and other online interactions could actually help save both their time and their patients’ time. Doctors could reach out to patients in many ways, including the following:

  • Establishing a Facebook fan page where patients can choose to post questions publicly or privately. Also, medical offices can use these pages to share information useful to their patients, perhaps questions many people have asked but are too shy to post themselves on Facebook or another site.
  • Sending an e-mail newsletter. Although many say e-mail newsletters are dead, I would disagree, especially for demographics 30 and older. Targeted opt-in e-mail newsletters may be a good way for patients to receive information while staying anonymous.
  • Creating a blog where a doctor posts once or twice a week on issues or questions many patients face. When patients visit the office, direct them to the blog for further information.

Of course, many offices already use these and other tools, and it’s important they integrate their online and offline presences. It’s also important for practitioners to use tools that are best to reach their desired target audience. In the end, no one-size-fits-all approach yet exists for all medical practitioners, but with a little experimenting and testing, doctors can surely improve their services and increase their efficiency using social media and online tools, which will, in the end, benefit their patients and society as a whole.

What do you think about getting medical practitioners involved with social media?

Sources: Why More Health Experts Are Embracing the Social Web | CDC Social Media Tools Guidelines & Best Practices
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