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Contact between patients on social media improves the relationship with healthcare professionals

17 October 2018
Contact between patients on social media can have a positive effect on the relationship between patients and healthcare professionals.

People with chronic illnesses benefit from online medical advice from other patients, for example via Facebook groups. It appears that contact between patients on social media can have a positive effect on the relationship between patients and healthcare professionals. If online interaction between chronically ill people focuses on providing mutual emotional support, the patient's relationship with their doctor can improve. Surprisingly, it is giving emotional support to fellow sufferers (rather than receiving it) that seems to strengthen the ties with care providers.

Edin Smailhodzic
Edin Smailhodzic

These are the conclusions of Edin Smailhodzic in his thesis entitled Transformative effects of social media: How patients’ use of social media affects roles and relationships in healthcare. He will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 18 October. His research was supervised by Prof. Albert Boonstra and Prof. David Langley.

Patient forums and online communitiefs

Smailhodzic studied the influence of social media on the relationship between patients and healthcare professionals. He analysed messages on patient forums and online communities for people with diabetes and brain injuries, and interviewed patients and doctors. If patients exchange knowledge about their conditions with each other online, it makes them more aware and knowledgeable in their dealings with medical professionals, says Smailhodzic.


Smailhodzic explained the change in the relationship between patients and their healthcare professionals from a psychological perspective. He concluded that mutual emotional online support is more important to patients than support through information. ‘Patients often start looking for information on social media. But it's the emotional support that they find online that has a positive effect on the relationship with their healthcare professional. Relationship between patients enhances their sense of self-determination and strengthens their position in relation to the medical profession. Apparently, this more equal position increases the patients’ trust in their doctor and helps them to come to joint decisions on treatment. It is striking that giving emotional support to fellow sufferers seems to heighten patients’ sense of self-determination, rather than receiving it.’

Supplementing regular healthcare

The use of social media is changing the roles of both patients and healthcare professionals, partly because it enables patients to learn from the experiences of others. In addition, exchanging information via social media can encourage patients to replace or supplement the traditional, off-line healthcare options. ‘During my research, I saw a new form of online collaboration with doctors emerging. A doctor answering FAQs on a patient forum, for example, so that patients don't have to make a separate appointment’, says Smailhodzic.

GP as coach

After conducting 19 interviews, Smailhodzic concluded that patient contact on social media is changing the way GPs work. Instead of ‘instructing’ their patients from a position of authority, GPs now coach their patients and encourage them to play an active role in the treatment process. ‘Some patients become unsettled by all the information that they find on social media. This allows GPs to focus more on providing social-emotional support and less on the technical side of treatment. Furthermore, today's patients arrive at the GP practice with a higher level of knowledge. GPs can sometimes learn from patients, particularly in the case of rare conditions.’

Last modified:17 October 2018 11.43 a.m.

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