Topol on Social Networking's 'Big Impact' on Medicine

This feature requires the newest version of Flash. You can download it here.

Hi. I'm Dr. Eric Topol, Director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute and Editor-in-Chief of Medscape Genomic Medicine and In this series on The Creative Destruction of Medicine, I'm trying to zoom in on some of the key aspects of how we will Schumpeter, or reboot, the future of medicine. [Editor's note: The phrase "creative destruction" was made famous in the 1942 book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, by economist Joseph Schumpeter.] This segment is about social networking and its impact on the future of healthcare.

Everybody is familiar with Facebook, which soon will have 1 billion registrants and be second only to China and India as far as a community or population. What isn't so much appreciated by the medical community is that our patients are turning to online health social networking. These are such Websites as PatientsLikeMe, CureTogether, and many others.

Interestingly, patients with like conditions -- often chronic conditions, such as multiple sclerosis, diabetes, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) -- will find patients with the same condition on these networking sites. And these virtual peers will become very much a key guidance source. This is so different from the past, when all information emanated from physicians. In fact, now many of these individuals who use social networks trust their virtual peers more than their physicians, so this is a real change that's taken place. In addition to this, the social networking platforms, which are free, offer an opportunity we haven't seen before.

If you combine the capability of monitoring such things as blood pressure or glucose with social networking, then you can have managed competitions with your friends, your family, or your social networking cohort, and you can start to compete for such things as who has the best blood pressure or who has the best glucose level. This, of course, is beyond competitions as simple as who has the best weight or does the most activity in terms of number of steps.

What we're going to see going forward is the leveraging of social networking for improving healthcare. This is really taking advantage of a preexisting platform of digital infrastructure, and something that we did not anticipate would be so popular in the medical sphere. This is superimposed on Facebook, for example, which has already had individuals who at least claim that their lives were saved on the basis of pictures of themselves and their condition.

In fact, there was a young boy who was desperately ill and undiagnosed, but a Facebook friend of the mother of this boy made the diagnosis of Kawasaki disease. Historically, this is the first case in which social networking supposedly led to saving one's life. There have been many other cases like this one that have been subsequently documented.

This is really an interesting trend, social networking. I'm really big on Twitter. My handle is @EricTopol, and I get my most useful information in the whole biomedical research digital health arena through that mechanism. I'd encourage you to try it out or get active on it if you haven't.

Social networking is having a big impact on medicine at multiple levels. I will be back with you on more segments of The Creative Destruction of Medicine, and I hope that you are getting a feel for how these aspects of the digital world are going to have a significant, if not a radical, impact on the future of medicine.