Social networks enable patients to be more involved in their healthcare

My article came out in the Guardian healthcarenetwork today.

Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli explains how medical practitioners can make the most out of online patient-to-patient networks

Social networks enable patients to be more involved in their healthcare

Clinicians must try not to brush away a patient’s own research. Photograph: Marc Romanelli/Getty Images

There is a quiet revolution happening in the way patients and medical professionals communicate, interact and relate to each other and it’s a revolution only made possible by online social networks, new forms of social media and mobile technologies.

At the heart of this shift are online peer-to-peer support networks such as Health Unlocked and Patients Like Me which enable patients to share details of their medical conditions with people who have the same or similar conditions and compare and contrast different diagnoses and treatments – anywhere in the world. Patients can ask for advice, learn from each other, discuss test results, compare how different medications, treatments or combinations of drugs might or might not be working.

This sharing of information creates a more informed and empowered patient and can lead to a radical reconfiguring of the doctor/patient relationship. The health professional can be challenged. No longer are they the only source of information – and this means relationships become more equal and collaborative.

Advancements in technologies, the ubiquity of smartphone devices and social media mean that soon, patients may have all the information they need for a decision about their healthcare to be made. They will be able to collate medical data from a range of different places – through smartphone apps, from their supermarket reward card or through their medical records. Next, they’ll be able to find out what all this data means through advanced online tools and they’ll be able to take all that information and work with their doctor to reach a shared decision.

Whilst this new world might strike fear into the hearts of some health professionals, many that we work with welcome it as an opportunity to compare themselves with other clinicians and engage patients around their treatment.

However, more needs to be done to ensure all health professionals are prepared for this new way of working and embrace the opportunities it can bring.

For example, clinicians must try not to brush away a patient’s own research – and they must learn this habit fast. If a patient comes to them with, for example, a print out from an online genetic sequencing website such as 23andme don’t dismiss it, read it. We can learn from sites like these. They teach statistics and genetics far better than any medical school can and they teach us how to clearly explain complex genetic conditions to a patient.

Also, when doctors use peer-to-peer sites where patients might be discussing their symptoms, don’t think that you are going on just to teach – go there to learn. You will most probably find a whole host of tips and advice about how patients are managing their conditions – information you probably never knew existed that you can pass onto other patients.

Lastly, medical schools have to change and adapt. They have to change their curriculums away from “paternalistic medicine”, where the doctor speaks and the patient listens, to “participatory medicine” where both the patient and the clinician bring the information, skills and abilities they have together make a shared decision about a diagnosis or course of treatment.

At Patients Know Best, we’re proud to be part of this quiet interconnected revolution towards participatory medicine. We think that more empowered patients – or rather the patients empowering themselves – will not only have enormous benefits for the individual but it will also lead to more efficient and effective healthcare systems across the world.

Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli is founder and CEO of Patients Know Best

This article is published by Guardian Professional. Join the Guardian healthcare network to receive regular emails on NHSinnovation.

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