This essay is the first in a series, highlighting sessions from this year’s International Pharmaceutical Federation (FIP) Congress. The article deals with the growing world of social media and its potential effects on pharmacy practice. Specifically, it covers the growth of various social media resources and what that may mean for patient access to pertinent and reliable health information, and how pharmacists can responsibly and effectively utilize these relatively new tools.
The term social media can refer to an Internet-based platform or application where users can create and share content interactively with other users. It provides an open forum in which individuals can express themselves and interact with others in the cyber world. Some examples of popular social media websites include Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. These forms of social media can be accessed through computers, mobile phones, PDAs, and tablets, and are capable of being utilized quickly and easily. While the use of social media is still relatively new in health care, there is no question that it will continue to be utilized and expanded as time goes on.
While the original intention of social media networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, was to connect individuals, it has evolved and grown as a means to provide health-related information. With Twitter, health agencies, pharmacies, and hospitals are able to post links to important services and functions that they can offer individuals. Facebook can serve both as an online version of the yellow pages for local businesses and services, as well as an online location where individuals can discuss specifics of a condition in a forum dedicated to a specific disease state.
Open forums benefit patients
Patients can benefit through the use of open forums by discussing conditions and expectations of treatment and disease progression. The website http://patientslikeme.com/ offers resources and support to improve health. Patients can ask questions and receive answers. Members and operators of this website are able to accrue and distribute large amounts of information. The ability for this website to partner with universities and independent research foundations allows individuals much greater access to patient-specific treatments, including both risks and benefits.
One of our greatest concerns as pharmacists should be that safe and accurate information is disseminated through these social media channels. Scientifically proven facts and studies can be invaluable to patients, while inaccurate data can result in unsafe and dangerous outcomes. A great example of harmful information found on social media sites was that of the alleged link between MMR vaccinations and autism. While the basis for this link was a 1998 study that has since been debunked, the number of measles cases in the United Kingdom has increased dramatically in the past decade. The proliferation of misinformation through social media channels has led to tens of thousands of individuals being affected adversely.
During the roundtable discussion following the FIP Congress session, the general consensus among speakers was that, at this time, the pharmacist is best utilized as a source of confirmation of information accrued from online and social media sources. At the end of the day, pharmacists in all settings have to acknowledge that, as Dr. Cody Midlam said, “Social networks are here to stay.” For better or worse, patients will increasing utilize the various forms of social media to obtain support and information to hopefully become better educated, and ideally healthier. With a plethora of potentially misleading knowledge available on the Internet and social forums, it becomes especially imperative that pharmacists be able to sort myth from truth for patients when they ask questions about information obtained from these websites.
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