Analysis

Social networks, social media, and social diseases

BMJ 2013; 346 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.f3007 (Published 22 May 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f3007
  1. Enrico Coiera, director
  1. 1Centre for Health Informatics, Australian Institute of Health Innovation, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia
  1. e.coiera{at}unsw.edu.au
  • Accepted 5 April 2013

Use of social media in healthcare is increasing. Enrico Coiera argues that it has the potential to change not only the way we deliver care but also the way we treat some diseases

Social processes underpin everything from our lifestyle choices, our health decisions, to the way healthcare is conceived and delivered. Social media—information tools that both exploit and celebrate our social nature—are beginning to be used across healthcare, and proponents see this technology reshaping everything from disease management to biomedical research. However, social media could have an even stronger role, enabling us to treat socially shaped diseases such as obesity, depression, diabetes, and heart disease. In this article I outline the growth of social network thinking and describe several current uses of social media in healthcare before describing how our understanding of social networks and media could be harnessed for this stronger role of treating socially shaped diseases. I also end with a caveat about the dangers of social media.

Social networks and social media

Social networks are a way of representing the ties that bind us as individuals into families, groups, organisations, and societies.1 With the realisation that even weak social ties have the power to influence,2 social network research has grown dramatically (box 1). The past decade has seen a growth of over 50% in the literature on social networks in healthcare.3 Social networks underpin the way physicians seek advice from each other4 and adopt new drugs,5 the way that evidence propagates,6 and the diffusion of safety and quality practices.3

Box 1: Social contagion

People tend to have friends who are similar to themselves—in interests,7, beliefs, and behaviour—a phenomenon known as homophily.8 The big debate in social network research has been whether homophily is simply the result of similar individuals clustering (“birds of a feather”) or …

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