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How Social Media is Reshaping Healthcare Conversations

Are you logged on and linked in? Social media continues to play a growing role in healthcare. New apps can calculate a patient’s insulin levels, hospitals host Facebook pages, recruiters search for résumés on LinkedIn, patients discuss symptoms in online forums, and healthcare organizations rely on Twitter during disaster relief. See below to read about the power of social media and how it can help nurses to better understand their patients and more.

According to Pamela Ressler, RN, BSN, HN-BC, adjunct lecturer of Public Health and Community Medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston, Mass., social media provides a unique opportunity for nurses to better understand their patients.

“In order to be an effective nurse, you have to understand your patient’s perspective,” said Ressler. “If nurses don’t understand the phenomenon of social media and how patients are using it, then they might not be able to connect with their patients on a stronger level.”

Ressler became aware of the power of social media when her teenage son was diagnosed with a terminal form of cancer in 2000. When he was admitted to the hospital, he still wanted to keep in contact with his friends. Ressler connected his computer to a landline dial-up and describes how – for a moment – while chatting over instant messenger, her son felt like a kid again.

“The experience opened my eyes to the isolation patients can feel when they are facing a chronic illness,” said Ressler. “I realized how the Internet can become a tool of connection for patients who are suffering or in pain. It can connect them to the outside world and it can connect them to other patients.”

Many patients search the Internet when seeking health information, but social media can be especially helpful for chronic disease patients seeking relief from the feeling of isolation. Social media can be a way for patients to exchange treatment information, discuss symptoms, share experiences and encourage each other.

In fact, there are even Tweet chats – conversations on Twitter that discuss a certain topic – for a diverse range of diseases and medical specialties. Using Tweet chat hashtags will connect you to the overall conversation of the chat as well as individual participants who will see your Tweets. During a Tweet chat, using hashtags is a way of linking together all the posts within the conversation. You can view transcripts of past Tweet chats, as well as a full list of healthcare hashtags on Symplur.com, a healthcare social media site.

“Sometimes people dismiss social media as trivial,” said Ressler. “But they’re missing the big picture. For many patients, interacting online creates a sense of being part of a real, vibrant community.”

According to Ressler, exploring social media can be an opportunity for nurses to not only better understand the experiences of living with a particular illness, but to also engage in the conversation and discuss healthcare trends.

Even with all of the benefits of engaging on social, Ressler does urge caution for nurses using social media.

“There can be legal consequences to nurses who violate HIPAA and other employer policies about privacy and confidentiality of patient information,” said Ressler. “I see social media as a wonderful place to share knowledge, track trends in healthcare and engage in dialogue with a large audience, but we must always remember the public nature of all social media platforms, and remember that confidentiality and privacy policies follow us into our online conversations just as they do in our face-to-face conversations.”

Ressler added that nursing is no longer confined to the four walls of a hospital. “Nurses are used to being on the front lines of patient care in communities, and we now have the opportunity to connect with patients in their new, online communities by logging in and sharing our voice online.”


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