What can Facebook tell us about patients?

At times, it can be easy to forget the power of social media. When my Facebook feed is filled with nothing but Buzzfeed quizzes designed to tell me which dinosaur I’m most like (velociraptor), or when Twitter is cluttered with the trending celebrity gossip of the day (#Bieber), I tend to lose sight of how important these sites are.

But dig just a little deeper and the potential of social media begins to overshadow the frivolity on the surface. Grassroots movements and revolutionaries communicate via Twitter and corporations are mining users’ data for all its worth.

This week, a study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research took a lighthearted look at Facebook users’ sense of humor when it comes to physicians. Matthew Davis, MPH, of the Dartmouth Institute of Health Policy & Clinical Practice in Lebanon, N.H., and colleagues looked at the Facebook walls of more 33,000 volunteers to uncover any patterns in jokes made about doctors.

They found doctor jokes to be fairly uncommon—0.79 percent of users posted one during the six-month observation period—but of those that were shared, about 40 percent had the doctor as the butt of the joke. One example of a quip discovered by the authors read, “Here’s a question for you: What do you call a doctor who finishes last in his medical school class? Answer: Doctor.”

Jokes about doctors were generally well received, judging by the comments and “likes” they received, but Davis and colleagues pointed out that the joke in the study that received the biggest response was one made about another favorite punching bag: lawyers.

On the surface, the study was all fun and games, but again, dig a little deeper and social media’s potential for healthcare becomes apparent. If corporations can monitor consumer habits on social media and tailor ads to them, why can’t organizations mine user data to get a survey of people’s healthy and unhealthy habits? Could we search Twitter for comments about medical imaging to get a better understanding of misconceptions among patients that need to be addressed with educational initiatives?

“The adoption of social networking has resulted in growing interest in using outlets such as Facebook and Twitter in creative ways,” wrote Davis and colleagues. “In addition to serving as an example, this study highlights some of the practical considerations regarding the analysis of data from social networking sites.”

Facebook turned 10 this year and social media is no longer a new concept. However, the landscape of social media is constantly evolving and as it continues to mature, I’m eager to see how innovative providers can use it to gain insights on patients and improve care.

-Evan Godt
Editor – Health Imaging