Who do you turn to when you fall ill or want to seek medical advice? Your family doctor or the neighborhood medico. Now, say experts that you may have now another possibility: social media.
As more Indians join social media platforms, WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook, among others, are helping to reach out to patients, guide them for treatments, provide counseling post-surgery and create close-knit support communities.
"We are frequently using WhatsApp, Skype and Viber to reach out to patients. Currently, we have over 180 patients connected via WhatsApp and over 30 through Skype who are receiving online rehabilitation training," says Dr. H.S. Chhabra, medical director and chief of spine service at the Indian Spinal Injuries Centre in New Delhi.
At present, there are 143 million social media users in India, including 25 million in rural India. By 2020, India will have at least 1.4 billion mobile subscribers, according to a latest report by Swedish communication technology and services provider Ericsson.
The medical trend has been catching up fast with the Indian health providers. Take the case of Anil Kalra, 27, who was diagnosed with a severe spinal cord injury in December 2012. After the surgery at the Indian Spinal Injuries Centre, he underwent rehabilitation for four months.
While recovering, doctors provided him health tips post-surgery via skype for 45 minutes daily for six weeks. After the online counseling period, Kalra is a happy man now. "Kalra's case demonstrates the importance of internet and social media platforms," Dr. Chhabra said.
Dr. Archana Dhawan Bajaj, gynecologist and obstetrician at New Delhi-based Nurture IVF Centre, has been using social media platforms for patients' benefit. "I use Twitter, FaceBook and YouTube to have a constructive dialogue with my patients. Social media is enabling collaborations in the context of health care which is essential in promoting awareness via sharing testimonies, providing support and advocating best health practices," Dr. Bajaj said.
The power of social networking in medicine should not be underestimated. "Many patients are joining us via social media. Many of them have received key knowledge about their ailments and possible treatments on Facebook and WhatsApp," says Dr. S.S. Sibia, medical director at the Sibia Medical Center in Ludhiana that is famous for non-invasive treatments for various diseases. This has saved many lives, he adds.
At Max Super Speciality Hospitals in New Delhi, WhatsApp has connected several breast cancer patients with specialists who are available for counseling round the clock.
"We have radiation oncologists and onco-surgery specialists on the WhatsApp group. So if a patient posts a query, whichever expert is available to answer at that time, addresses the query," said Dr. Anupama Hooda, director (medical oncology) at Max Hospitals.
At times, patients share general health tips, anecdotes and organize activities like yoga with group members.
"We have more than 75 active members on WhatsApp and are strict about the content being posted. It is not an entertainment group - it's only for support purposes," Dr. Hooda emphasizes.
In a recent survey involving 2,250 people in the US, nearly 57 percent said they were interested in using Facebook and e-mails to reach out to doctors for managing health better.
Nearly 46 percent of patients wanted to use e-mail to track their health progress, said the survey from Johns Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health, published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.
"We do use social media to counsel our patients and take queries from post-surgery long-distance patients to resolve their concerns," comments Dr. Deep Goel, director (department of bariatric and gastrointestinal onco-surgeon) at BLK Super Speciality Hospital.
"We also have a WhatsApp group of our bariatric patients who remain in touch with surgeons and dietitians," he informs.
Social media's use in health care is limited in India, though. "Social media can be a double-edge sword for health experts because communication over e-mails and instant massaging may not provide the complete profile of the patient," Dr. Hooda emphasizes.
"Drug prescription and final diagnosis should be done only after a through physical examination," Dr. Goel stresses.
Social media, however, is a great platform to understand the epidemiology of diseases.
Moreover, social media can play a pivotal role in bridging the gap between doctor and patients.
"Facebook and Twitter can play a major role in mending the increasing distrust between the patients and their doctors," say the experts.
According to Dr. Samir Parikh, director (mental health and behavioral science) at Fortis Hospitals, social media is helping provide emotional and practical resources to patients and creating awareness about other health-related issues.
"Social media is also breaking stereotypes, giving lifestyle and health tips, facilitating behavior changes and, ultimately, helping people lead healthier and safer lives," Dr. Parikh says.