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22-07-2012 | Article

The power of social media

During the problems with petrol supply a few months ago, there were still a few petrol stations open for business in my area ‑ if you were prepared to queue. The big problem was to find them and one very effective way to do so was to use social media. Searching Twitter revealed which stations were still selling fuel. This is not the first time Twitter has helped me find useful information and after reading a recent article in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), I realised how powerful this medium could become.

The article offers a fascinating glimpse into the near future (click here for the article, which is behind a pay-wall). Trends in Twitter posts could help to pick up disease outbreaks, particularly infectious diseases, more quickly than current conventional methods. This speed could be critical in formulating a response and the public health implications could be very important.

It is unlikely that social media (such as Facebook and Twitter) will completely replace traditional methods of gathering information, but these new data streams could certainly supplement existing standard information sources. Furthermore, the flow of data can also work in reverse. Because of the large volume of users, it is easy and very quick to transmit important health data and information from central government or health agencies to the population at large via social media outlets. The BMJ article cited the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan's coast with great ferocity as an example where, despite the massive devastation, mobile Internet was still being transmitted and information could be relayed over Twitter to treat patients, where therapeutic drugs could be sourced.

Of course, the final place of social media in the future of medicine will be decided by the more traditional methods of peer review and evidence-based medicine. However, I am sure these exciting communication channels will play some role in the near future.

This story neatly highlights the importance of modern medicine to embrace new practices and technologies and incorporate them into our everyday medical life. It is equally important not to be seduced by these fascinating technologies and to make sure they work before we adopt them. Even so, it is difficult not be excited by such breakthroughs, which until recently would have simply been considered part of science fiction.

Best wishes,

Harry

Dr Harry Brown, editor-in-chief Univadis

By Dr Harry Brown