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Centre for Public Health in Economics and Business

Faculty of Economics and Business
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Transformative effects of social media: How patients’ use of social media affects roles and relationships in healthcare

Datum:28 januari 2019
Healthcare and social media
Healthcare and social media

Social media have changed how we communicate and conduct business. In line with these general trends, healthcare is also experiencing an increasing number of patients who are using social media for health-related purposes. Edin Smailhodzic recently defended his PhD thesis on patients’ use of social media and the effects of such use.

According to Smailhodzic chronically ill benefit from emotional and informational support from other patients on online platforms such as Facebook, blogs and specialised social networking sites. Furthermore, contact between patients via social media also has a positive effect on the relationship between the patient and their care provider.

 Relatedness between patients
“In one of the studies, we hypothesised that patients’ use of social media for emotional and informational support would increase their autonomy, competence and relatedness and, through this, affect their relationship with healthcare providers.” Surprisingly, no support for all of the hypotheses was found: “Our main findings in this particular study were that emotional support, as opposed to informational support and increased the self-determination which, in turn, affected the relationship with doctors (healthcare providers in general) in a positive way.”

Psychological perspective
Smailhodzic explained the change in the relationship between patients and their healthcare professionals from a psychological perspective: “The traditional view is that the use of social media for informational support (building knowledge, getting facts about how to treat certain condition etc.) would lead to empowerment and changes in relationships with doctors. However, we found that the emotional support was actually more important, at least for the patients in our case, and that the emotional support indirectly improved doctor-patient relationship.”

Secondly, Smailhodzic discovered in his post hoc analysis that it was more beneficial for patients to give regardless if the giving was about informational or emotional support, rather than receiving it. Apparently giving helps their self-determination (autonomy, competence, relatedness) and strengthens their position in relation to the medical profession. The more equal position increases the patients’ trust in their doctor and helps them to come to joint decisions on treatment.

Besides the positive effects there are also downsides such as information overload and (not) being able to verify accuracy of the information the patients find online. Smailhodzic: “Furthermore, it could on certain occasions lead to substitute of offline healthcare and self-diagnosis. Although the extent literature suggests that the use of social media by patients leads to tensions with doctor, we actually found that it often led to new partnerships.”

Advice for doctors
What would Smailhodzic advice a doctor on how they can benefit from the social media use of their patients? “It is somewhat inevitable that the patients will use internet and social media in particular to find out more about their condition and discuss their condition with peers. Thus, doctors should be pro-active and actually try to create/facilitate such social media communities, which would help them to facilitate provision/sharing of credible health information.”

You can find the complete thesis of Edin Smailhodzic here:

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