Europe edges US in social media for health info, says study

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Europeans – physicians and consumers alike – are much more receptive to the use of social media for health information than are their American counterparts, a Digitas Health study suggests. 

For the study, Kantar Health surveyed 1,000 physicians and consumers in the US and Europe on their use of social media. Among the findings:
  • Sixty-seven percent of European consumers said they trust the information they find in social-media venues. Only 45% of American consumers agreed.
  • Fifty-two percent of European physicians said healthcare professionals should participate in discussions in patient forums and social networks, compared to only 41% of US physicians. Similarly, 41% of European doctors believe social media will play an increasingly important role in shaping their patient management and treatment, versus only 23% of US physicians. 
  • Half of European physicians said drug companies can and should offer digital services that can be integrated into their local primary and secondary care services. Only a quarter of their US counterparts agreed.
  • Two-thirds of doctors and 32% of all patients surveyed expect their online communication on health-related matters to increase over the next 18 months.
  • Over 40%  of physicians in Europe said social media will play an increasingly important role in shaping their patient management and treatment, and 70%  see social media playing an increasingly import role in shaping patients' opinions about their medication and condition.

“While the Internet has been changing the nature of the patient/physician relationship for years, social media is starting to play an interesting role in the delivery of emotional support, with people suffering chronic and sometimes stigmatized conditions,” said June Dawson, managing director of Digitas Health in London. “By enabling people to share experiences and ask and get those honest answers to questions about their condition, social media is removing much of the mystery behind medical decisions and is a powerful source in helping to make the industry more democratic and humane for patients.”

The survey found particular enthusiasm among doctors for using online support to break through the isolation that some patients with chronic illnesses feel, particularly those suffering from psychiatric illnesses and degenerative neurological diseases, though they favored in-person support groups slightly over online support groups (89% to 74%). Two-fifths of patients with chronic conditions said support groups are valuable, but that number was much higher in Spain, where 94% approved of in-person support groups and 83% said online support was worthy.

Social media is also being used by general practitioners to help identify resources for patients, the survey found. Patient health forums and bulletin boards are chosen as information services by 66% of physicians, demonstrating the increasing role of online communities and groups of like-minded individuals. More traditional resources continue to be important, with 73% of physicians confirming their use of pharmaceutical company websites. 

In Europe, reference web pages are the most important type of resource for consumers looking for health information, Digitas Health said. Wikipedia, followed by the French physicians' website Doctissimo, are the two websites most likely to be recommended to others, while WebMD and the Mayo Clinic online resources are the top US consumer resources, the agency said. The UK's NHS Direct ranked 6th across Europe.

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