Like most people, healthcare professionals use mainstream social media networks to connect with friends and family. But almost one-third of them also join social networks focused exclusively on healthcare.
Within these communities, providers find medical advice and best-practices, job openings and career tips, research and product information, as well as the opportunity to securely communicate with peers. Patient-focused networks, often built around a particular condition or disease, give individuals and their families supportive communities where they receive comfort, insights, and potential leads on new treatments.
Healthcare social networks also address the industry's privacy and security mandates. The data mining practices of sites like Facebook and Twitter make some patients and providers leery of posting questions or comments. And while many healthcare organizations use Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and other social tools to communicate with constituents, individuals often worry about posting information in the wrong place. By sharing data on specialized sites -- especially those that plainly detail their security and privacy policies -- healthcare professionals and other users can feel safer about expressing their thoughts.
"There's a certain distance [healthcare professionals] need to maintain from patients -- both legally and for their own sanity. Even a friend relationship [on Facebook] can be considered a privacy violation," Doximity CEO Jeff Tangney told InformationWeek earlier this month.
Doximity's 250,000 members represent about 40% of all doctors in the US, according to the company. Most of the free site's traffic consists of HIPAA-compliant one-to-one messages and discussion forums that focus on business challenges or diagnoses.
Healthcare professionals are increasingly turning to specialized online communities to seek advice, advance their careers, or look for new jobs. In 2011, 31% used social media for job searching, up from 21% the prior year, according to AMN Healthcare's "2013 Survey of Social Media and Mobile Usage by Healthcare Professionals." The report also revealed that 48% used these sites for professional networking in 2011, compared with 37% in 2010.
Networks aimed at doctors deliver additional benefits, says Jon Michaeli, senior VP of global community and marketing at free physician-only community Sermo. "Members have access to over 35% of the US physician population to engage in discussion on any healthcare topic in an open, collaborative environment," he told us.
For their part, patients access a diverse array of social networks designed around healthcare -- including specific diseases and conditions, research, and support. These communities encourage members to forge relationships, share individual stories, and become more informed.
CureDiva, for example, helps breast cancer patients and survivors, says co-founder Ester Gofer. Members choose their preferred level of content-sharing privacy. The site also sells items like wigs, bras, and radiotherapy wraps.
"When women visit the CureDiva site, they will have both an easy shopping experience from a large variety of products as well as suggestions and support from the online community of breast cancer survivors who have been in the same situation," Gofer told us. "A sense of family and comfort is formed because of the personalized experience as well as support from other women."
ConnectedLiving focuses on seniors, a rapidly growing population of users. Currently available through nursing homes, assisted living complexes, and other senior housing centers, ConnectedLiving plans to extend its secure private social network into senior users' homes, says CEO Sarah Hoit.
"We have an entire aging population that's disconnected," she says. "ConnectedLiving is not about maximizing the number of connections; it is about maximizing the meaning of connections."
ConnectedLiving users don't get Facebook-style friend requests from people they don't know, says Hoit. Instead, online and real-world friends are the same group -- but the virtual community allows seniors to see their grandkids' Instagram photos or share their own photos via ConnectedLiving.
Social media aren't replacing doctor visits or in-person support groups, but some research suggests they may reduce unnecessary physician appointments. In a study, ConnectedLiving partner HP discovered that some users who had previously been spending days in bed or at the emergency room were transformed after joining the social network. "People are logging in nine or 10 times a day and not getting sick," Hoit says.
Special-interest social networks are playing a bigger role in healthcare. Check out these 12 examples. Which ones interest you?