Many people think of social media as a place to waste time. Users log on to check out a friend’s vacation photos, let the world know about their relationship status and catch up on some news. And hopefully not the fake kind.

But can social media be used for a greater good? Could it save lives? The short answer is “yes.”

From providing emotional support to suffering patients to training of first responders to education and encouraging wellness, social media provides health benefits galore. So while Facebook can’t drive you to the hospital yet, there are many signs of hope within social media channels.

First responders and emergencies                                                   

Those connected to their county government, elected officials and utility companies via social media are often the first to learn of emergencies. Officials typically share road closings, power outages and weather updates first via these easy communication channels.

Social media can help medical professionals, specifically first responders, improve how they respond to emergencies. These communications also go both ways, allowing first responders to use social media to expand their informational reach.

Patients connect with online communities                           

When diagnosed with a disease, patients have tons of questions and fears. They think, “If only I could talk to someone who has been through this already.”

Social media sites facilitate those suffering from particular diseases create a community unlike any other. Patients Like Me is a site that connects patients based on their diagnosis, providing online communities for those with Multiple Sclerosis, ALS, epilepsy and more.

There are also social components to many healthy eating and exercise apps. Take My Fitness Pal, which allows you to connect with friends or post your progress to your social media pages. This type of social wellness activity encourages accountability and solidifies healthy habits.

Mental health warnings

Cyberbullying is prevalent in today’s society, and it can lead to the tragic outcome of suicide if not stopped. Parents and teachers are using social media to look for signs of bulling, violence or other threats so that they can intervene as early as possible.

For example, a school district in suburban Los Angeles, California, hired a technology firm to monitor students’ social media usage as part of an effort to increase student safety.  During the pilot phase of the project, the firm saved a student’s life when they picked up their social media postings, allowing the school to intervene.

Wisely using social media

Of course, social media doesn’t come without drawbacks. For example, violations of privacy are becoming more common as health care workers post patient stories and photos online. Even if done anonymously, it can deter patients from receiving care out of fear of violations of privacy.

This isn’t just speculation. A high-profile example of technology use gone awry came to light during the inquest into legendary comedian Joan Rivers’ death. Investigations eventually revealed that her doctor allegedly took photos of an unconscious Rivers during her procedure.

While we should use technology wisely and cautiously, it has the potential to help both patients and health care professionals.

Social media can help inform emergency responders so that they have the most up-to-date information and it can provide a community to those diagnosed with life-threatening diseases. It can also encourage healthy habits.  By connecting patients and professionals, social media can actually save lives.

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