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Beginning a Conversation about Technology eHealth and Collaborative Family Health

Posted By Gonzalo Bacigalupe, Tuesday, December 22, 2009
Updated: Wednesday, June 1, 2011

As you walk towards the nearest coffee place, what you see are people enthralled with their smartphones. You may have heard or observed teenagers enchantment with texting. You definitely know about Facebook even if you do not have an account or you forgot how to login after having lost the password when your teenage nephew told you how to open an account to check the last Thanksgivings photos.

Someone may have provided with the link to reports of the Pew Internet and American Life Project published by the Pew Research Center. You heard of Twitter, one of the most popular social media tools, which not only helps spread the news but also shape them. In the case of the uprising in Iran in 2009, the images, video, and reports on mainstream media were, for the most part, the product of social media tools-regular citizens carrying smartphones and connected to the Internet. It is just impossible not to notice, something is happening and it seems at times just a fad. Indeed, this blog entry is also an invitation to a conversation with the author and others. Should we care? What does this "social media revolution" have to do with collaborative health care?

Briefly, what is social media or social technologies? Social media is a set of highly accessible tools for anyone with access to an internet connection via phone, computer, and other digital devices. These tools allow anyone not only to observe what others have produced (TV is a good example) but also to engage in the production of media. Through social media, we not only consume information but we also create it. In the case of health care information, it opens up the possibility for all stakeholders to engage in conversation, share information, analyze it collaboratively, and interact more efficiently. Social media tools are also interoperable, live in the "cloud", and for the most part are not attached to a particular device or software; all of which means that we do not need to have one specific device to interact with others.

These tools defy the financial, geographical, and logistical barriers that exist in creating a context for ongoing interaction, collaborative learning, fast access to information, and transparency. Why do so many professionals engage so often with a social media tool like Twitter? Twitter, a form of microblogging, provides a virtual meeting platform for individuals and groups who share similar interest without a large investment travel, time, and membership dues, among many others. Besides meeting individuals you may know "in person," you also meet others online. It has the added benefit of helping busy clinicians or scholars to maintain ongoing communication without the overwhelming demand of an email inbox after a brief period of no internet activity-paradoxically, often an explanation for not adopting microblogging is accompanied by the statement: "I have too much email already".

Social media tools facilitate the development of self-help and support groups. These networks of support can bring people with rare diseases together or towards a new tailored treatment modality. In the clinical-research arena, the recruitment of patients for a clinical trial would be much easier and effective with these tools than an ad in your local newspaper or an NIH sponsored website. Ease of accessibility is a tremendous and not to be taken for granted potential of these technologies. Think of twitter as your digital bulletin board outside your office, but in the case of a social media outlet, your bulletin board is reaching many more offices and at times the world at large. But besides the ability to reach a wider audience and fast, social media tools foster innovative ways of interacting with others.

Several months ago, while investigating the impact of social media on health care, I run into a threaded conversation about technology and health care or e-health. The contributors used hash tags at the start of an acronym or word in every entry. An intriguing hash tag was #hcsm. Soon, I discovered that "health care and social media" is an ongoing discussion occurring every Sunday 8-9 PM Central Time. The discussion participants are interdisciplinary: researchers and academics, social scientists, clinicians, marketing and health care business specialists, and patients or epatients . The weekly discussions provide an informal but powerful forum "strangers" to engage in dialogue about a specific and emergent subject with questions submitted by participants earlier. The power and tools to set up these virtual meeting places are not necessarily connected to an academic degree or authority, geographical location, or financial influence, but pure acumen. In my example, the convener, @danamlewis, is an undergraduate senior at the University of Alabama whose @HealthSocMed avatar serves as the hub for the #hcsm community.

As a result, an open interdisciplinary self-regulated community is born and sustained. This is the kind of reflexive engagement that our overspecialized professional guilds or academic worlds would make very difficult or highly expensive to create. For those of us attempting to construct a collaborative health care movement, a reflective practice that values the inclusion of several disciplines, patients and their families, and the community at large makes a lot of sense.

What do you think is the impact of social media on the collaborative health enterprise?

What are your thoughts and ideas as you think about the power of social media to enhance and shape the collaborative family health enterprise?

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