Social media is going to change the health-care industry just as radically as it changed entertainment, finance, and publishing. I know this to be true not because of any insider info or the research backing Chuck Salter's Doctor of the Future story in this month's issue. I know it's true because out of all the panels and conferences I've attended in the last two years, the session with the most passionate, activated and engaged participants in it was titled "Social Media and Health Care."
The organizers of SXSW had clearly underestimated the value of this rather boring sounding discussion, because the room was overflowing. Every inch of floor space was taken. The guys from the insurance company were standing near an EMT, and at his feet was a woman who had blogged about her hip replacement surgery. The mother of an autistic child is nearby Dr. Jay Parkinson from Hello Health; he's one of several physicians in the room.
Every debate about the future of medicine begins with privacy. And I'm not too optimistic when this one starts out the same way, because this particular debate sometimes never gets past this hurdle. But after a few minutes of back-and-forth about whether we'll trust our medical files to Google or Wal-Mart, the room seems to silently come to an agreement that the privacy issues will be overcome for one simple reason: the benefits of losing a little bit of your privacy will be so great as to outweigh the risks of doing so.
Then the room sparks to life. What if doctors were engaging with patients on a Facebook style platform? How about crowdsourcing data about new treatments? Where is the Mint.com of medicine? These all seem like such obvious outcomes, and yet they don't exist. The discussion moderator barely gets a word in now, Web site names pinballing around the tiny room along with each new idea. (I email all the links to my mother, a nurse practitioner, and tell her it may be time to quit her job.) Everyone here recognizes that there are certain inevitable changes taking place: Patients are becoming smarter and more connected to one another, and the current medical system is getting weaker. In the face of the technologies available today, there is little hope that the insurance industry can survive as we know it—and that doesn't bother anyone (except maybe the insurance guy).
Yet the risks of giving patients the Facebook treatment are also very real and present in this room. This is illustrated near the end of the discussion when Mike Bonifer, author of GameChangers – Improvisation for Business in the Networked World, tells his personal story about Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV). Bonifer had come down with the illness, which is not terribly serious, at the same time as his accountant. But the two had completely different experiences in treating the ailment.
The accountant used the existing health system to get cured—he went to a number of different specialists, and spent $6,000, to get everything sorted out. Bonifer Googled his symptoms for a few hours, and found a YouTube video of a treatment known as the Epley Maneuver. Then, in a move that will strike fear into the hearts of the insurance companies and malpractice-fearing physicians alike, he followed the instructions in the video and cured himself.
And in that anecdote is both the great hope and challenge facing the future of the health care. It's one that the doctors of the future will have to weigh carefully.