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Can Social Media Do More Harm than Good?

Editor's Note: Matt Katz, M.D., is a member of the External Advisory Board for the Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media.

I’ve been a social media enthusiast for some time and see great potential for communication technologies to improve health and medicine.  As a doctor, I’ve begun to explore how to use it professionally.  But after witnessing enough scandals over the last year or so, I have reluctantly started to consider whether social media may do as much harm as good for our health.

Social media is not going away, and it is changing how we interact.  I started out researching the topic with plans to write a review article.  But several nagging questions arose with these technologies related to healthcare:

  • Are privacy violations online detrimental to our health?
  • Do increasingly sophisticated marketing unduly influence health-related decision-making?
  • Do hospitals providing social media resources balance patient benefit with self-interest?
  • By lowering the barriers to sharing, are some unhealthy practices or opinions making it harder for providers to help patients?
  • Why are physicians and other healthcare providers less involved online, where people are increasingly looking for answers about health?

My purpose in raising these questions is to avoid disastrous use of new technologies we’re only beginning to understand – first, do no harm.  As we become more interconnected and our health is affected by online activity, the potential for harm may become scalable and a potentially avoidable Black Swan may emerge.  By discussing what we don't know, I hope to make the transition into digital medicine less harmful for both patients, clinicians, and others in healthcare.

I do not expect to find definitive answers, but I do want to explore these topics as serious issues and try to develop working solutions to further tweak.  Each question deserves its own discussion, and I plan to do so in future posts.  If you have others you want to share, or you want to add to mine, let me know and we can add them to my list.  Good questions are the best starting point for dealing with uncertainty.

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