A story I read recently in The New York Times by Bruce Feiler ("Whom Do You Tell When You're Sick? Maybe Everyone You Know") has been on my mind for weeks. The piece explored people’s ideas about when and how and to whom to disclose their medical conditions, and in it, neuropsychologist and A.L.S. specialist Paul Wicks of Patients Like Me, an online support network with more than half a million members, said, “The value of a tweet-length piece of information can be the difference between life and death.”
When my father was dying from lung cancer in 2009, I made the personal decision to actively tweet some of the most heartbreaking moments of my life. My mother, a member of the Silent Generation, initially didn’t understand why I might share something so personal online. I said to her, “People need to know. People need to understand how horrendous this disease is. No one else should suffer like this.” At the same time, I was looking for the support of others in similar situations. Ultimately, she agreed.
In 2008 and 2009, my personal storytelling on Twitter was a unique occurrence, and it led to larger and larger followings of people I didn’t know in real life, who became invested in my story. When my father eventually died, two people I had never met face to face sent bouquets to my work. The human connection of shared experiences via social media was strong then, even more so now.
Today, we see more and more patients and caregivers openly sharing information online. Why is social media important in healthcare? Because people today don’t just use social media to connect with networks of people; they also use content to inform and make decisions.
Could a tweet help someone find an organ donor? Perhaps. More likely, a disclosure may connect that person to a community, scientific research and expert opinions that offer support and information on doctors, treatments and what to expect along the way.
Social media platforms are recognizing that this interconnectedness can help patients, caregivers and healthcare professionals. As a result, they continue to optimize platform functionality. A great example of that may be the rise and integration of the emoji. Emoji usage signals emotional empathy. This small, symbolic action allows us to respond in an emotional way to another person’s emotional state. The ability to share a reaction on a Facebook post or to reply with an emoji sharing a feeling can convey empathy to strangers across the world experiencing something similar during moments that matter.
For brands in the healthcare space, there is an opportunity to provide meaningful content that helps patients move beyond barriers in treatment. The journey from symptom to diagnosis and beyond can be a long and fearful one. As doctors navigate new technologies like telemedicine and new offline solutions that are expanding the healthcare ecosystem, content and community become even more important.
People are increasingly turning to social platforms to understand what good health looks like for their condition — connecting to patients and content that helps them know what conversation to have at what time. What’s the best way to tell your family that something is wrong? What’s the right way to have a conversation about a condition with a doctor? How do you talk about your options with people in a community who have been there and done that, but whom you’ve never met in person? How do you respond with empathy to someone just embarking on a patient journey? Communities of purpose will shape how people ultimately get better care, both physically and emotionally, and the brands that facilitate these connections in authentic, meaningful and empathetic ways, will also gain successful relationships in the process.