Social media has become a normal part of life. It is as common to use as the telephone, television, and newspapers or magazines. I actually can’t remember the last time I read an article in print, but I do read dozens of articles on social media every day. You can find information about literally anything at any time just by typing on your phone or computer, all that it requires is an internet connection. Merriam-Webster defines social media as forms of electronic communication (such as Web sites for social networking and microblogging) through which users create online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages, and other content such as photos and videos. Initially, social media seemed like just an easy way to keep in touch with relatives and friends. You can know all the details about your childhood friend’s career, marriage, and family even if you haven’t seen them in ten years. Social Media (SoMe) has evolved into a way to learn about issues that interest or affect you and get connected with others who share the same ideas or concerns. I think one of the fastest growing areas where SoMe is making a huge impact is in the medical community.
When I was first informed about having a BRCA mutation, I had no idea what that really meant and I didn’t know anyone to talk with in person. Within five minutes of searching on social media, I was connected to other women who were dealing with the same concerns and asking the same questions as me. It is a huge relief to know you aren’t the only one facing the same challenges and you don’t feel alone, even though the other people may be strangers, they feel like friends. I found the same wealth of information and support when it came time to decide on breast reconstruction following my double mastectomy. It is so quick and easy to communicate via social media; you can change someone’s life all from home in your favorite pajamas! Having this abundance of information and support as a patient facing medical decisions and major surgeries is empowering and allows you to feel more confident and prepared when you meet with physicians. You can go in to an appointment informed and not feel overwhelmed, which leads to the ability to engage in shared decision making with your doctor. Having the ability to share experiences and outcomes can help to ease some of the anxiety about the decisions you are facing. Another unique advantage of turning to social media for support is that people tend to be more open and willing to share from the safety of a keyboard. It can be more intimidating to have conversations about sensitive issues in person, but there is a feeling of anonymity when communicating online.
While I believe the advantages of social media outweigh the disadvantages, there are some things to keep in mind. Everyone is different, and this is especially true when it comes to medical decisions. Even if you have the same exact condition or surgery as someone else, it does not mean your experience will be the same. There are so many factors that play a role such as health conditions, lifestyle choices, comorbidities, and how qualified or experienced their physician is. You should never rely only on the guidance and opinions of other patients to make your medical decisions, but rather consult with a medical professional to assess your personal situation.
As reassuring as it can be to hear from others who have been through similar experiences, it can be be very frightening to hear from those who have bad outcomes or complications from those experiences. Again, because of all the factors I previously mentioned, you may increase your anxiety or even worse, avoid a medical procedure you need based on complications you may never have.
There is a delicate balance to find between being informed and being able to maintain perspective when navigating the SoMe world. It is a wonderful tool to utilize to find support and develop friendships, but it can not replace the value of face to face communication with your health care provider.