Social Media: Medicine's Bane or Benefactor?

Social media gets a bad rap. And, frankly, deservedly so. It seems to ruin two marriages for every set of long lost friends it reunites, and our obsession with our Facebook news stream and Twitter updates in many instances may be turning us into a society of rude, crick-necked louts. 

But I come today not to bury social media, but to praise it, for there are still some gems amidst all the click-bait, particularly as relates to medicine and the public's perception of it. For example:

It's great for raising funds. You remember that crazy ALS “Ice Bucket Challenge” that inundated your feeds a while back? Nationally, 2.5 million people raised a little more than half the money — $115 million — for the charity, which promotes awareness of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the disease commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease. And affiliated chapters in the U.S. and around the world collected another $105 million, including $16 million in Canada.

Social media denizens have been generous with more than just their money, as well. When Facebook added a single organ donation question to their timeline, over 57,000 people announced their intentions to be donors, and 13,000 officially joined their state registry in a single day. This was an increase of 21 times over normal registration rates, according to Johns Hopkins researchers.

The spread of both Ebola and the flu have been tracked via social media means. Researchers at Northeastern University created a real-time map tracking international Ebola awareness through tweets. In Italy, scientists improved on Google’s Flu Trends to create accurate “syndromic surveillance” of flu through Twitter. Yes, social media is watching your every move and its creepy, but here were two instances at least where the our perpetual surveillance state used its genius for the Good of Mankind.

Sometimes, social media assists medicine by letting us turn the mirror back onto itself. The massive, real-time treasure trove of public data is a bonanza for medical researchers. For example, theUniversity of Pennsylvania recently found that angry tweets were a strong predictor of fatal cardiac disease. According to the study, the “model based only on Twitter language predicted [heart disease] mortality significantly better than did a model that combined 10 common demographic, socioeconomic and health risk factors, including smoking, diabetes, hypertension and obesity.”

Social media has had a huge and beneficial impact on clinical trials. Used to be that 30 percent of the work behind a clinical trial was spent recruiting patients. Now, much of that heavy lifting is done through social media. One study in the journal Pediatrics found that 84 percent of patients for two recent pediatric rare disease trials were referred via social media.

Maybe there is a non-infuriating niche for social media after all. Now if I can only figure out what I need Snap Chat for...