Are social media relationships different? Implications for patients?

HCLDR AvatarsBlog post by Colin Hung

A friend of mine who is not active on social media recently asked me a question that took me a long time to answer – Are social media relationships different than other relationships? It was a fascinating question and one that I had not given a lot of thought to. Eventually I answered “Yes”, but the question has stuck with me over the past several weeks.

There is no doubt that social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, etc have transformed the way we meet and interact with our friends, family and professional networks. These platforms have also given the opportunity for people who don’t even know each other to bond over similar similar tastes in music, political views, change-the-world-passions and of course – cat videos.  It is truly astounding how social media can connect people together.

Personally, I am mostly a Twitter user. I use Facebook and LinkedIn as well, but most of my time is spent crafting and reading 140 character tweets. Through Twitter I have had the privilege of e-meeting hundreds of people who share a passion for changing healthcare – people I would have never otherwise met. I am humbled that people out there in the Twitterverse actually read what I write and I am so grateful for all the advice/knowledge that these wonderful Tweeters have given me.

There’s nothing quite like meeting someone in-real-life (IRL) that you have gotten to know via social media. The best way I can describe it is: a combination of reuniting with a friend you haven’t seen in a long time + going out on a first date + meeting an author whose books you have long admired. I am fortunate that my work takes me to many healthcare conferences where I get the chance to meet many of the people I have traded Tweets, comments and posts with. It is something I truly cherish.

I find that when I meet someone IRL for the first time, we are able to jump right into meaningful conversation right after shaking hands (or hugging). We seem to pick up right where our online conversation left off. [Cautionary Note: I’ve been known to snap a lot photos at conferences when I meet up with people – you have been warned]. Even though the meetings are brief, when we part, I always fell closer to that person – that somehow meeting in the flesh has solidified what previously was “ethereal”.

Because of my friend’s question, I have begun to wonder why I feel differently about my relationship with people I only know through social media (who I have never met) versus those that I have met IRL or who I only know from face-to-face meetings. Are online-only relationships somehow different?

After thinking about it for a while, I have come to the conclusion that social media relationships are unique…and they are a paradox. I feel very “close” to the people I interact with on Twitter. In fact I draw great inspiration and strength from those online relationships. However, in the grand scheme of things, I barely “know” most of these people. I don’t know if they are married or single, whether they have pets, what their title is or what city they really reside in. Should I feel bad about this? Is it even necessary to know these aspects of someone’s background in order to be “friends”? Is this just the nature of relationships initiated through social media?

Some argue that social media/online-only relationships aren’t a good thing. In a Time Magazine interview with Kim Stolz, former contestant on America’s Next Top Model and author of “Unfriending My Ex: And Other Things I’ll Never Do”, says:

There’s been an emerging body of research that shows that when you stop having offscreen interaction, you lose empathy. You lose the ability to have genuine reactions to real problems and real things. [In her book Stolz cites a study that found college students are 40% less empathetic than they were 30 years ago, thanks to on-screen interactions that make it easier to say mean things and act before considering the consequences of our actions.]

Personally I don’t agree with Ms. Stolz. I find that my social media relationships have actually increased my empathy…especially for patients and healthcare providers. Through Twitter my eyes have been opened to how helpless patients can feel in our healthcare system and how providers are struggling to make the system better for all of us. I think if I met my pre-social media self, I’d walk away thinking how naive that person is (I was). For me, social media and in particular healthcare social media has been a positive force. I believe that many who are active feel the same way.

We are, however, still in the minority. The majority of patients and those who work in healthcare are not active on social media. In fact, many healthcare providers avoid establishing any social media relationships at all – especially with patients. This quote from Matt Goldstein in a Computerworld article sums it up nicely:

I actually just got an email from my residency program, and they cautioned us strongly about social media and about using it judiciously. For me, something like Facebook, which started off as a really powerful social tool to interact with friends and colleagues, in some way became a concerning liability.

I believe, however, that the social media train has long left the station. The number of patients and physicians on social media will only continue to grow. Sooner or later we will reach the proverbial tipping point and interacting through social media for healthcare will seem as natural as picking up the phone. We are still in the early stages of healthcare social media and it will be very interesting to see how it will shape the healthcare relationships we have in the years to come.

Join us Tuesday July 29th 2014 at 8:30pm Eastern Time (for your local time click here) for the weekly #hcldr tweetchat where we will be discussing the following topics:

  • T1: Are social media relationships different than the others you have? How so?
  • T2: Do you feel social media has impacted you as a patient? Provider? +ve or –ve?
  • T3: What is on the horizon for healthcare social media? Where will its biggest impact be in 5yrs?
  • CT: One thing you learned tonight that you can take back & use to help a patient or your organization tomorrow?


“Kim Stolz: How Social Media Is Ruining Our Relationships”, Eliana Dockterman, Time Magazine, June 24 2014,, accessed July 27 2014

“Facebook and physicians: Not good medicine”, Lucas Mearian, Computerworld, May 23 2012,, accessed July 27 2014

“The impact of social media on a physician assistant”, Anne Dang,, January 7 2012,, accessed July 27 2014

“Go where the patients are: Why this doctor is active on social media”, Howard Luks MD,, February 26 2014,, accessed July 27 2014

“The Effect of Technology On Relationships”, Alex Lickerman MD, Psychology Today, June 8 2010,, accessed July 27 2014

“Social media: A goldmine and minefield for biopharma”, Mari Serebrov, BioWorld, March 19 2014,, accessed July 17 2014 (Hat tip to Marie Ennis-O’Connor @JBBC)

“Professional Relationships and Social Media”, Mike Monteiro, Mule Design Blog, August 9 2011,, accessed July 17 2014

“Engaging Patients Through Social Media”, Aitken M et al, IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics, January 2014,, accessed July 27 2014

“4 ways social media can transform doctor-patient communication”, Rachael Seda, Ragan’s Health Care Communication News, June 17 2013,, accessed July 27 2014

Image Credit



  1. Now a day life is quite busy for each and every individual we hardly get enough time to personally interact with people and social media is a great tool for interacting with people even if you are busy especially it is a good tool for patient as they feel lonely most of the time, but it has some side effect as it affect our real life interaction as it quite easy to interact on social media, but for interaction in real life you need show some emotion and felling according the situation and conversation you are having with people so, i suggest we should keep interacting personally whenever we get time for it.

  2. […] post, you need to refer to the 7.29.2014 blog post via @Colin_Hung on the #HCLDR Blog entitled: ” Are Social Media Relationships Different? Implications For Patients?” (click on […]

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