OPINION: Go easy on online health information

Monday March 18 2019

Syriacus Buguzi
By Syriacus Buguzi
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Each passing day, we read lots of health-related information on Facebook, Twitter and other social networks – and there is, therefore, a pressing need to assess the impact of such information.

A survey of patients conducted and published by the US-based Mediabistro.com website found that health choices of over 40 per cent of the patients who were polled were influenced by what they read on the internet.

In 2014, researchers conducted a study titled The Use of Social Media Among Adolescents in Dar es Salaam and Mtwara, Tanzania, the results of which were published in PubMed, a free search engine accessing primarily the MEDLINE database of references and abstracts on life sciences and biomedical topics.

In that study, adolescents highlighted their interest in reproductive and sexual health messages and updates delivered through humorous posts, links and clips – as well as by youth role models like music stars and actors that are entertaining and reflect up-to-date trends of modern youth culture.

That’s clear proof of the thirst for health information among the public in the country. Currently, there is a significant rise in that.

This has to a large extent jolted health professionals into action to come up with platforms that provide the info in various ways.

Online platforms such as JamiiHealth, TibaFasta, AfyaYako, AfyaTrack and Elimika help in raising awareness on health in Tanzania – thanks to the growing internet access and social media reach in the country.

Indeed, more people are using the digital space to make health choices.

One medic, Joseph Manda, is among the founders of DaktariMkononi, a website that raises awareness on health. Dr Manda told me that certain people end up in hospital with diseases that they could have prevented at an early stage if they had access to the relevant information in good time.

The idea of having more medical professionals online is commendable. For far too long, the presence of medics on social media was minimal – thus giving rise to quacks: doctors of questionable ability and reputation.

There was a time when people pretending to be healthcare experts would cash in on the ignorance of other people to sell fake healthcare products in the name of “healing foods”.

That, though, hasn’t ended. There have been cases when misleading health information circulates on social media. But healthcare workers are on the frontline to fight this.

There is a group of radiotherapists who created the www.saratani.info platform to spread the right information about cancer through the cross-sharing platform WhatsApp.

People benefit from this if they pick up such messages and help others to fight risky habits such as cigarette smoking, and encouraging the public to go for screening of possible ailments.

This would also cut the cost of having to stage physical campaigns – just as it used to happen in the past, with vehicles going round with sirens sensitising people to go for screening.

However, there is also a word of caution. There are challenges which are likely to arise as more and more healthcare professionals share information. This is especially when they do it among themselves in social media groups.

There is the possible risk that cases may arise where patients’ privacy is breached. We’ve heard of cases where healthcare workers knowingly or unknowingly shared clients’ information in social media, resulting in medicolegal issues.

How do we make the most of it out of the digital space, amid all these risks, pray? That’s why it is important that healthcare professionals tread cautiously on social media.

The fact that what they share via social media influences others cannot be overemphasized. There are people who already have resorted to diagnosing themselves of certain illnesses simply because of what they read online. This has led to self-medication practices.

Whatever the impact that this information has on people generally, it’s important that users of what is published online seek professional advice over and above the information they gather on social media.