Social networks could revolutionise patient care

Facebook-style online health communities are helping to improve patient care and provide rich data for new health innovations, a study has found.

Research from Warwick Business School indicates there is a critical need for patients to be supported in managing and coping with their chronic diseases, and that many patients are finding this support in online communites.

Professor Eivor Oborn from Warwick Business School, said: “We wanted to see how the millions of user contributions on these online communities can be used to help GPs and hospital doctors.

“By developing health trackers and getting patients to track their illness on these online communities this improves and speeds up the type of care clinicians can offer.

“Through AI and data analytics firms can leverage knowledge in these online communities to create value for healthcare research benefiting pharma companies and patients alike.

“Analytics allows you to understand in precise detail the symptoms of different patients and the effectiveness of different drugs for each type of patient.

“This can be very helpful with facilitating personalised medicine for patients, ensuring drug safety and effective treatment.

“Also, the power in these online communities to identify and attract relevant patients for clinical trials of new drugs is dramatic. For example, health organisations took almost six months to recruit 250 people by traditional means whereas it took one of these online communities just 48 hours.”

The research showed online communities generated different kinds of value for stakeholders in healthcare, from rating services, connecting people and companies, tracking patients and profiling them.

This not only helped the website generate revenue streams through grant funding, venture capital, fees from charities, subscriptions from medical providers, and contracts with pharmaceutical companies, but saw patients find out how services rated, how well different treatments and drugs worked and the progress of patients during their illness as they updated their status.

The researchers found that as more and more patients join online communities so their reputation grows and they become a more legitimate member of the healthcare ecosystem, with the site becoming a platform for new digital capabilities.

Professor Oborn said: “It is really exciting to see the emerging business models and innovative collaborations that are developing through these online communities.

“The millions of user contributions in these online communities can be harnessed by start-ups to improve our health service.

“There is a huge amount of data on these websites, waiting to be mined and put to good use by developers.”