Sunday, October 28, 2007

Another Extension of Medicine and Social Networking…?

I don’t have too many insights on chronic illness this week. I’ve been sick, the malingering, annoying, infection-y kind of sick, and well, there’s really not too much to say about it. It’s just an occupational hazard. Plus, with the book wrapping up soon, the hometown team on a World Series streak, and the upcoming NaNoWriMo, there have been plenty of distractions.

So I’m looking outward with this post, and can’t help picking up the topic of social networking and medicine another time. As discussed here and throughout the medical blogosphere, there are many benefits to the merging of medicine and social networking: Patients can connect with each other and share insights and information and practitioners can exchange tips and resources.

Between Facebook, MySpace, and LinkedIn, there are all sorts of ways for people to connect personally and professionally. It makes a lot of sense to me to have a site specifically designed for physicians, one that allows them to discuss techniques and best practice information and doesn’t require them to use their full names—enter, a Cambride-based social networking site for licensed physicians. After all, as this article points out, doctors are usually more focused on discussing treatment methods than the traditional networking business people do.

Since it launched last year, Sermo has attracted 25,000 physicians. I consider this trend to be largely beneficial—if our physicians are flummoxed by a set of symptoms or want to bounce ideas off of colleagues who specialize in their field, then providing them a space to do this gives the patient the potential for better outcomes.

What’s interesting about Sermo is that it is financed by hedge funds and other companies who have access to the discussions physicians have on the site. This allows them to track trends and controversies in the medical field and the doctors’ names are kept anonymous.

Like many discussions that involve pharmaceutical companies and their interactions with physicians, this interesting financing approach has the potential to become controversial when you add Pharma to the mix.

As reported in this article, drug giant Pfizer recently announced it will partner with Sermo. This arrangement will give the drug manufacturer—which laid off 20 percent of its domestic sales force in 2006—another direct route to reach in the hopes learning more about prescribing preference. Pfizer-affiliated doctors will be able to speak candidly with Sermo users, something that is either smart marketing or seriously worrying, depending on your point of view. Some think it’s a better alternative to swarming physicians with office calls, but others worry about the far reach this latest extension of social networking affords pharmaceutical companies.

So what do you think? As patients, does knowing that a large drug company will have unprecedented access to physicians make you nervous, or do you see it as an inevitable and positive technological step?

In other medical technology news, I came across this tidbit in Newsweek: the Cleveland Clinic has introduced a program called MyChart, which allows patients to access their online medical records through a password-protected site. The hope is that this access will mean better self-care and disease management, and preliminary results are promising: diabetics who used MyChart showed better control of their blood sugar.

At first glance, what Newsweek calls a “taboo-breaking initiative” (and I don’t disagree with that assessment) seems both positive and forward-thinking, harnessing the power of technology to help patients take control of their health. But a discussion in one of my classes got me thinking about the other potential outcome of this—what about those patients who would receive more harm than benefit from unfettered access to their medical records? One example that comes to mind are patients with eating disorders who are too focused on their weight and might get worse if they see numerical evidence they have gained any pounds.

Obviously I’m not sure what kind of safeguards or restrictions on use are in place, and I do think the precedent set by MyChart is a significant one. But in a world where so much can change so quickly, it’s also helpful to play the devil’s advocate now and again—especially when we’re talking about our health.


Terry at Counting Sheep said...

Truth be told, I believe that patients have always been allowed to see their charts, if they ask. Most don't ask, or don't know to ask.

Laurie said...

I totally agree, most patients don't think or know to ask...And I think that's what makes this program an interesting initiative--it goes beyond simply having them be available for the asking and instead makes the charts a part of hands-on, patient-centered disease management. Should be interesting to watch it develop....

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