The Future of Social Media in Health - Part Two
In this three-part blog, we look at ways in which social media can become integrated into the fabric of our nation’s health care; we look at how it can and must become a means of fostering all-round well-being, from simple fitness all the way through treatment adherence to chronic disease management. The last entry looked at the quality dimension and in today’s entry, we explore cost and value.
Managing health care costs through digital
Health care spending in the United States was around $2.5 trillion in 2009, equivalent to 17.6 percent of GDP. It’s forecast to rise still higher.
On top of the health care cost inflation that consistently outpaces retail price inflation and GDP growth, there are also likely to be at least 30 million more Americans brought into the system by health care reform. Given that the population of the country is 310 million, the new influx represents an increase of at least 10 percent in the numbers currently in the system.
There are cautious hopes that smarter use of digital technology will help address some of the health cost issues facing the US health care system. Top of mind are Electronic Medical Records, which have been the focus of much attention and hope. The Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act kicks in this year with conditions to encourage health care providers to adopt IT and with the lure of more than $36 billion in incentive payments up for claiming. However, there are serious concerns about whether large-scale complex initiatives of this sort can do the job of bringing together relevant patient information effectively, let alone cost-effectively.
Using the Internet and social media less formally may turn out to provide unexpected ways to manage health care costs.
Heading off costs upstream
The nation’s obesity problem looked like a prime candidate. A vast amount of cost could be removed from health care spending if the nation managed to reverse the ballooning growth in obesity and the corresponding rise in associated diseases, notably type II diabetes. January 2011 figures from the American Diabetes Association show that 25.8 million children and adults in the United States have diabetes and 1.9 million new cases of diabetes are diagnosed in people aged 20 years and older each year. The ABA estimates 18.8 million diagnosed, 7.0 million undiagnosed and 79 million prediabetic. It calculated the cost in 2007 at $174 billion.
Social media offers the potential to leverage the social network effect and help Americans trim off unhealthy pounds and thereby trim health care expenditure too. If social media were to make an impact in just this one area of health spend, it would make a major contribution to the physical and financial well-being of the nation. But it can potentially do a lot more.
Social media offers channels for dialog between health care professionals and patients; actively discussing options can help them all make more cost-effective treatment decisions. People living with like conditions are finding each other through social media and creating support systems of mutual interest. This aggregating function is providing health care providers and insurance companies with extremely cost-effective ways to connect with specific groups of patients and consumers. They can pitch their services and products, and demonstrate their authority on the topic to help in the dialog. They can also learn from the dialogs.
Containing costs midstream
Physician visits represent a significant cost in health care – not just the physician’s time, but also patients’ time (including travel and waiting) and other incidental costs such as gasoline. Virtual visits may offer one way of reducing these costs. Technically it’s already possible so the issue is down to whether physicians and patients are willing to use it. A survey by our sister company Tonic found that 78 percent of Americans would be willing to consult with their doctor online; around one quarter cited the appeal of lower cost, and a quarter cited greater convenience and saving time.
Unfilled prescriptions and patients not adhering to treatment plans represent substantial costs to the health care system and the potential decline of patients’ health rather than improvement. Sometimes it’s down to forgetfulness and sometimes denial or other forms or resistance get in the way. Whichever it is, technology can help to nudge things. When patients with similar conditions are linked to each other through social media, they are exposed to social cues and medical information that remind them to stay on track. This is also an area that’s clearly ripe for mobile apps to lend a helping hand; there’s a growing selection of medication reminders available including MedsLog, Medsy, MotionPHR Health Record Manager, Dosecast and MediRemind.
Mining value downstream
Health content in social media has reached 10 billion pages, and is increasing at a rate of 40 percent per year. Companies such as First Life Research, in collaboration with Healthline, are mining this vast reservoir of knowledge to determine drug effectiveness. Applying semantic web analysis the company has examined some 600 million posts representing some 15 million patients reporting, covering more than 9,000 drugs; the objective is to have 30,000 drugs and brands covered. Analyzing natural language (only in English so far), the system delivers information on topics such as side effects, drug effectiveness, drug switching, drug interactions and drug comparisons, with drill-down analysis of topics within those topics.
This sort of data mining of social media has the potential to yield information that would normally take enormous investments of market research time and money.