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New book highlights role social media plays in health care

By April Frawley Birdwell

First, tweet no harm.

According to a 2011 Nielsen report on Internet traffic, Americans spend nearly one-quarter of their online lives using social media, so it’s no surprise sites like Facebook and Twitter have become a part of the digital health care landscape. This is the focus of Social Media in Medicine: The Impact of Online Social Networks on Contemporary Medicine, a new book co-edited by a University of Florida College of Medicine researcher that takes a closer look at the role social networking plays in health care today and the opportunities it offers for the future.

Until now, most of the research into social media and medicine has revolved around professionalism — issues related to how health care providers and medical students should behave online — and protecting patients’ privacy. These topics are still a big part of the book’s content, but the text takes a broader view, covering everything from ethical dilemmas to how social media affects clinical practice.

“Social media is no longer a novelty,” said Erik Black, Ph.D., a UF assistant professor in the colleges of Medicine and Education and co-editor of the book. “It’s time to push the conversation beyond issues of professionalism into new boundaries.”

Individuals, health care providers and health institutions are already using social media in both beneficial and potentially worrisome ways. Patients have formed online communities using social networking, as have physicians, in some cases raising privacy issues. Even Facebook itself entered the arena in May, adding a tool that allows users to update their organ donor status and linking them to online registries.

“There is no right or wrong answer,” said Beatrice Boateng, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the College of Medicine at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, who co-edited the book. “One of the authors mentions how she has friended her patients on Facebook and checks on them regularly, while others suggest not to do this.”

One of the issues Black writes about is the potential for geolocation, the use of place in social media. As most smartphones now have GPS capabilities, social media apps have been around for a while that update users where their friends are at any given moment. Place and location could benefit health and the practice of health care, either by influencing users who constantly see their friends checking in at the gym, or linking people to health resources closest to them, or even helping health institutions better manage equipment and resources within a hospital.