Filtering the Flood of Medical Social Media

social-media-collageBy Matt Wood

It’s hard to avoid consumer advertising for prescription medications. Flip open a magazine and you’re likely to see a picture of a middle-aged couple, sitting in matching bathtubs, hawking erectile dysfunction pills. Turn on the TV and you’ll hear an actor rattling off a long list of scary-sounding side effects from a drug to help stop smoking. Direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising is the fastest growing form of marketing, rising 330 percent from 1996-2005. About $4.3 billion was spent in the United States in 2009 on drug ads, and companies have expanded their marketing efforts to social media.

A recent study in the Journal of Medical Internet Research found that all of the top ten global pharmaceutical companies now use Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and other sites to market their products, and eight out of the top ten have their own mobile applications. Of the top ten highest grossing drugs of 2009, nine of them have dedicated websites, Facebook pages or Twitter accounts, and disturbingly, illegal online retailers were also selling nine of the ten top drugs via social media.

With this deluge of legal and illegal marketing pitches, how does someone know what to believe when they look for medical information online? The FDA has provided general guidance to the pharmaceutical industry (PDF) for responding to unsolicited requests for information, but consumers are on their own. “The problem with the medical information online is that it’s not well regulated. In many cases it’s not easy to see who is behind a particular website and what their agenda is,” said Ves Dimov, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics and medicine at the University of Chicago Medicine.

Dimov is an allergist and immunologist who has been a leading advocate of using social media in medicine. He is ranked as one of the top three social media influencers in medicine by, a service that measures a user’s influence on various social networks, and his website is one of the most popular online allergy and immunology resources, with more than one million page views. He says that the solution to wading through the flood of suspect medical information online is for physicians to provide their own stream of trusted, verifiable information.

“In an ideal world, every single physician in the country should have his or her own presence online via a Twitter feed, blog or a Facebook page,” he said. “Studies show that we trust our friends’ opinions more than Google results, so if somebody you know posts a link to an article you’re much more likely to click on it. Patients’ own doctors can provide quick reference links to high quality information online, such as key recommendations, new studies, etc.”

Dimov says that when physicians share valuable information online, it creates “a cycle of information,” where patients and physicians learn from each other through both clinic visits and interaction online. “A clinic visit is much more useful for both the physician and the patient if the patient has already read the physician’s website or blog,” he said. “Then they can leave with printouts with links to the physician’s blog, website, Twitter and Facebook page that list trusted resources, go home and find more.”

But he knows this is a daunting task for many doctors, whose demanding schedules often leave little time for email, let alone a lively Twitter account or Facebook page. To help physicians get started online, he created a guide called “Social media in medicine: How to be a Twitter rock star and help your patients and your practice.” It includes tips for doctors on gathering medical research and news efficiently and maintaining an effective social media presence. The key is closing the loop with patients so they have a trusted resource online. “Our relationship with the patients doesn’t stop once they leave the clinic,” he said. “It’s the start of the process of helping them get well through collaboration.”

Liang, B., & Mackey, T. (2011). Prevalence and Global Health Implications of Social Media in Direct-to-Consumer Drug Advertising Journal of Medical Internet Research, 13 (3) DOI: 10.2196/jmir.1775

About Matt Wood (531 Articles)
Matt Wood is a senior science writer and manager of communications at the University of Chicago Medicine & Biological Sciences Division.
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