When I started my career with pharma marketing, 20 years ago, an old woman patient from a village came to see a doctor. The doctor, as a routine, checked her pulse, BP, eyes, tongue, ears and then asked what’s her problem.
She asked, “What did you check by doing all that and what did you understand from that?” The doctor was speechless for a moment. This incident gave me a perspective for a lifetime. Patients know about their illnesses better and doctors about medical conditions plus the resources available to manage those. Healthcare happens when both of them work together.
Empowering means strengthening to achieve better results more efficiently. Hence patient empowerment is a process, which enables and makes it possible for the patient to participate in the journey to better health or greatly reduce the suffering. Information available to a patient, education available for a patient, options available to a patient to participate in decision outcomes are some of the parameters that lead to patient empowerment. To put it in a nutshell, enabling “informed decisions” by the patient is patient empowerment.
The doctor insists on the instructions through his communication during the visits of the patient. Compliance is very difficult. When the doctor blames the patient for being non-compliant, sometimes patients can resist change leading to complications. In traditional visits, mostly the conversation is a monologue. Surprised? It is, mostly. Across the table information is presented to the patient orally. Patients don’t get adequate time to make decisions. It becomes not possible for the patient to assimilate the information, think it over and share their perspectives. It becomes impossible to have time in-between the presentation of information and decision-making. It is impossible for patients to discuss with family, friends and others before taking a decision.
Today the scenario has changed with Social Media.
The Impact of Social Media
Social Media is a generic term for tools designed to aid online social interactions. To be specific, it refers to tools that help people have conversations online, on topics that matter to them. These conversations can be through Blogs, Wikis, Social Networks and many other tools.
Two years before I happened to see an article about RA (rheumatoid arthritis). I shared the article, found in a social network, mentioning Vit. D deficiency linked to RA and optimizing Vit D levels and monitoring them, with an RA patient. The patient discussed the same with his doctor and both were happy to know about the latest information. This would not have been possible in traditional world.
To me, another good example of understanding the impact of social media tools came when I saw a patient diagnosed with “urinary incontinence”, one of the most under diagnosed, completely misunderstood areas at that time where there are adequate treatment options available to lead a normal life. Thanks to the digital world such conditions today are managed better.
We have a good example in what we call “elective surgeries” where patients are offered with information, suggestions, pros and cons of decisions. In elective surgeries there is no sense of urgency and hence patient is given time. I feel the same can be extended to other treatments too and social media tools available today can bridge the handicap that erstwhile we had of communication vs time and location dependence.
In the recent years, with the Internet around, I have seen patients confronting doctors with superior information on their conditions and being termed as “bad patients”. This is because the Doctor-Patient hierarchy of the traditional world is being broken. I have also seen doctors who explain all the options available and include patients to make decisions. I have seen doctors encouraging their patients to share and help build a community of patients to support each other. Studies show that disclosure and sharing stories help healing.
Patient empowerment can happen either individually or as a community. Patient empowerment programs have been there for a long time. Studies also show that patient empowerment programs show better results than others. Policies are made in some countries to help participation by the patient. Recently I saw this on the Internet: “When “I” is replaced with “We” even Illness becomes Wellness”. How True!!! Just that it is getting much better with social media tools.
I have seen some orthopaedicians who have helped their patients to form a group and have encouraged them to share within the group. RA patients and OA patients learn a lot from each other and also understand from their doctor that situations can be unique. Same way, I have seen a network of paediatricians and obstetricians helping young mothers to share and help each other to encourage giving mother’s milk to the baby. Though there are teething issues with such groups, once the group have some senior members, it helps a lot. The doctors feel that such communities help them to spend their limited time with the patients in a way that is useful for the health of the patient. Such examples when extended with the support of medical doctors creates better healthcare due to patient empowerment.
With Social Media tools, patients will find it easy to adhere to the advise of their doctors. Even reminders are possible as part of the communication strategy without insistence or pushing the patients to behave. Relevant, structured information with details to the required extent can be passed on, today, using the social media tools. The biggest disadvantage of limited time in traditional world can be overcome nicely by employing some of the social media tools and interacting with them over those tools. As against monologues, two-way communication with needed time gap is possible with social media tools. Today, with social media tools, patients can listen to similar experiences and leverage that knowledge to strengthen the information from their own doctors towards decision making.
The two most difficult areas of patient care are prevention and lifestyle changes. You will be surprised to see the statistics of “preventable” or “identifiable early” category numbers. Social Media can be effectively employed to prevent diseases/certain conditions and also to concentrate on the health part rather than the disease part. Doctors will also use Social Media to update themselves with the latest literatures to serve patients better.
Hence Social Media is a big blessing in patient-centered care. Studies have clearly established that finding out early, distribution of relevant knowledge and partnerships with patients can help greatly reduce healthcare costs for a nation. Hence healthcare policies should encourage and include a Social Media Policy for the long term.
In my experience, Patient Empowerment slowly but surely moves people towards discussing Good Health from treatments and diseases by educating and making them involve in their health. Also in emerging markets like India, where access to good healthcare is tough to come by, social media tools can go a long way in better healthcare by way of imparting education and involving the patient in their healthcare.
What do you think? Feel free to comment. You can reach me at @VaradhKrish or www.varadh.com
Varadh is a well-known marketing strategist with special focus on using social media strategy, helps businesses of all sizes with fine-tuned social media consultancy. Varadh has been an independent consultant for the last 7 years. Before that, Varadh has been in domestic and international Pharma Marketing and Business Development for more than 15 years including his stint with MNCs and Indian companies with specialization in the India-Latin America corridor.
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