I recently interviewed a trainee doctor about the role online communities play in modern healthcare.
She had found, through patient assessments, that the internet and the infamous ‘Doctor Google’ were ever present, regardless of the ailment.
Whilst the NHS encourages patients to check out symptoms online via NHS Choices and group online clinics, patients often go a step further- seeking a personal connection via forums or chats with doctors on unofficial sites.
We all want to control our own healthcare and with the media whipping the public up in to a frenzy with horror stories, there seems little wonder that people are taking matters in to their own hands.
But what does the evolution of online health communities mean for traditional practitioners of medicine?
Should these digital groups be handled with caution, or is there a way to empower the patient with knowledge about their own conditions?
Is there a role for NHS-led online communities and ultimately digital contact with a healthcare professional?
Is one head better than two?
The premise that collective knowledge is beneficial to society is one we generally believe to be correct.
As an agency it’s certainly something we endorse, through our support and use of Drupal and our interest in Open Data and resource sharing.
Not everyone is of the same view, yet.
It became clear during my interview that whilst younger, upcoming doctors were more aware of and receptive to online communities, traditional practitioners still had some anxiety around the collective managing their own healthcare.
It’s easy to see where they’re coming from, with the natural tendency to fear the worst people can easily spiral in to hypochondriasis, spurred on by misplaced advice from health communities.
This is detrimental to the health service, taking up extra time in an already under-staffed resource.
Digital can help
Whilst digital healthcare communities can seem an untameable beast with an unprecedented amount of power, there must be a place for them in modern medicine and healthcare.
Providing a patient or service user with the means to manage and understand their own condition better by using the internet can only be a positive thing for the NHS.
Community sites like Ask the Doctor are emerging, providing quick, easy and anonymous access to answers and the chance to chat with a doctor.
Not only does the advent of official and knowledgeable communities reduce the burden on the healthcare system by providing advice digitally, it removes the stigma for many who would avoid a face-to-face meeting.
This could include those from ethnic minority communities to people who are suffering abuse, or who feel embarrassed to speak to their doctor.
The more people who can be encouraged to talk freely about their health, the more we can improve the collective health of the population.
Pushing keys, not pens
The NHS is under huge strain, but rather than fearing digital communities, it should be the benchmark for online healthcare advice. This needs to occur not just through information pages, but as a mirror of the personal touch it provides offline.
Perhaps if the health service followed the behaviour of its users, there would also be an according increase in the number of young people wanting to train as general practitioners.
People communicate in a vast number of ways, through WhatsApp, messenger, Skype and forums- could the strain on GPs and A&E be aided by providing one-to-one digital contact in the first instance?
I put this to the junior doctor, who said that whilst being ‘digital first’ would save a huge amount of money in the long term, there were many other issues to address first.
There is no doubt that the digital opportunity is within the sights of the health service already and great work has been done.
A move to a ‘digital first’ health service may be a long way off, but it’s something we should all be thinking about.
Without an official, regulated and efficient way to gather advice and feel cared for digitally, we risk the development of a healthcare information ‘black market’.
People are already talking about their health online, so the healthcare professionals need to decide whether they want to be involved in the discussion.