Beware of medical advice on Facebook, it could come from this guy…
Last night, I was slogging around the Internet – following links from my Google Reader to find some relevant articles for next week’s “Digest This!” column.
After about an hour of reading nothing of much interest, I came across and article on Slate.com about a woman who posted some pictures of her son’s rash and swelling on Facebook. She was concerned because her doctor wasn’t sure what was happening after a string of medical tests and wanted to reach out to see if anyone in her social network could help.
After posting the pics, a neighbor saw them and called to tell her that she needed to take him to the hospital immediately because it looked like Kawasaki disease, a rare and possibly fatal autoimmune disease – if left untreated. The neighbor’s child had the same disease a few years before.
The woman listened, took her son to the doctor, mentioned Kawasaki disease, the doctor agreed and then treated him accordingly.
Her son is now recovering with some liver damage, but dodged – for the most part – a serious, maybe fatal autoimmune reaction.
Facebook probably saved his life.
Could Facebook save your life too?
The natural health world is filled with people who want to help.
It’s also filled with people who’ve read significantly more than the regular population. (If you’re thinking that isn’t you, remember the average person reads one book a YEAR!)
What this means to me is that chances are the people you’ve attracted on Facebook (if you’re even the least bit active) probably know a thing or two that your doctor may not.
These days your social network is your personal town hall. A place where you can voice grievances, share information and ask for help.
It’s a real-time personal advice board that is 1000% more effective than Ask.com or Yahoo! Answers.
I see social networks as a fantastic place to ask for advice if you need it, but…
What’s the downside of getting medical or health advice on Facebook?
You may have noticed, there is a lot of misinformation that is spread though social networking channels (as well as in person.)
What I’ve found over the years is that a good portion of information spread in the natural health world can come out a little distorted – like it’s been through a giant game of telephone.
Remember that game? It’s the one where a group of people get together and one person starts with a sentence that is whispered around the room all the way to the last person. The person at the end then shouts out the sentence while everyone laughs because it’s transformed into something completely different than the original.
I’ve seen this game of telephone on Facebook many times.
Here are some examples:
“You’ll never have a protein deficiency.”
“Cheese is 100% fat.”
“If you’re feeling bad on a 40 day juice fast, it’s just your body detoxifying.”
These statements may not be true and when coming from your own personal circles may be misleading – because you likely trust the people you’re connected with.
Brevity leads to more confusion.
The neighbor of the woman in this story picked up the phone to call her friend and tell her to go to the hospital because she suspected that the boy had Kawasaki disease.
Imagine if she had simply commented, “go to the hospital, it’s Kawasaki disease.”
The mother may not have taken it seriously. The brevity of Facebook and other social networks doesn’t bode well for credibility or accuracy.
While the average time a doctor spends with a patient is somewhere between 3-20 minutes (depending where you get your information), the average Facebook post is 120-180 characters.
Short posts don’t contribute much more than confusion, and Facebook and Twitter (limited to 140 characters) are limited in their depth because of the nature of the medium to inspire quick, truncated responses – most people aren’t there to write in-depth, thoughtful analysis of the possibilities you may be experiencing.
When people write to us on the blog or in our Helpdesk or on Facebook, we see that most people aren’t very clear about their situation. Here’s an example (name withheld):
For a few months now I have been vigorously taking herbs and vitamins daily and have switched my diet to over half raw. My main problem is that I still lack energy and my mid afternoon slump lasts until bedtime. Do you have any suggestions?
While this person is clearly suffering, we’re not really given any valuable information to even point them in the right direction.
What herbs? What vitamins? What are you eating that is raw? Have you had any past health issues? How old are you? I think you get where I’m going with this…
A wrong answer to this question could lead this individual down the wrong path pretty quickly.
I could imagine posts on Facebook to this comment:
“You need to eat more raw, 100% is best.”
“Stop taking vitamins, you don’t need them.”
“If you slump during the day, it’s definitely detox symptoms.”
“You must eat an all fruit diet, it’s the only way to eat, all societies eat an all fruit diet, look it up.”
All of these, which I’ve seen permutations of, are relatively useless to this individual, since they haven’t been clear about their diet, lifestyle or habits.
Finally, medical professionals really can’t post advice on Facebook, so who’s giving you advice?
In this case of Kawasaki disease, everyone wins. Mom, her son, her neighbor, Facebook, the doctor – everyone comes out as a hero, but there’s a challenge that practitioners have when they’re posting on Facebook that everyday people or health renegades like us don’t need to abide by…
Medical or licensed practitioners ethically and legally aren’t really allowed to give advice on Facebook. They could lose their license.
On the other side, someone who’s not licensed, can do what they want and give advice rather freely. This is a good and a bad thing.
The advice you’re likely getting from asking for advice possibly isn’t from someone who’s trained (yes, in natural medicine as well), but they may or may not know what they’re talking about.
How much does this matter? Depends…
It definitely doesn’t mean that the information given is incorrect, it just means that and advice that you’ve solicited from Facebook is probably best used as a starting point – not as a diagnosis or treatment protocol for your challenge.
I’m sure, you’re smart enough to understand all this, I just feel – based on my own past experiences – that I need to make this clear.
Social networks have given us an incredible reach and ability to find and gather information, but they’re also created more noise (shouting?)
I see nothing wrong with soliciting medical advice from your social network for Facebook (again in this case of Kawasaki disease, it’s a total winner), but I also don’t feel that it can replace the teamwork found when you work with a practitioner who can spend some time with you to put together a protocol based on their experience and knowledge.
I want to know your thoughts: Has Facebook or Twitter ever helped you (or not) with a health issue you were having?