By Samantha Aster

In a growing trend, technology companies are seeking to combine medicine and social media into a field now known as “social medicine.” New technologies like Scanadu’s Scout measure vital signs through mobile applications and utilize social media to discover real-time, personal health information and diagnoses.

While there are potential benefits to social medicine in improving health and lowering costs, there are concerns about the trend that consumers should be aware of.

Over-reliance on social medicine may have negative consequences regarding cost and health. Testing by these applications may not be as technologically advanced as those performed in hospitals and doctor’s offices, and may not be strong enough to accurately detect smaller or less obvious abnormalities. Over-reliance on good readings may lead to fewer visits to personal physicians, or even missed or late diagnoses. Conversely, since the testing may not be as accurate, people may receive false positives or may overreact to readings without a verified medical explanation.

Another possibility is that any abnormalities may cause people to visit their doctor more often, since people tend to think the worst when it comes to their health, thus unnecessarily raising individual costs. Consumers should know that social medicine cannot and should not replace regular visits to their doctors.

Security of health care information is also a serious concern. Unauthorized access to a social medicine application can enable hackers to manipulate data to their benefit. Stories of hackers gaining access to secure websites raise significant concerns over security and privacy of medical data shared on the Internet and mobile applications.

Consumers also should be concerned with receiving answers to their health and medical questions by unverified individuals. For example, how do we know that a qualified medical practitioner is actually looking at vital signs and giving accurate medical information through social media?

While social medicine offers numerous potential improvements to the medical field, consumers should be careful utilizing social medicine until they can be sure it is safe and reliable.

Samantha Aster is a health care policy fellow in Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division.

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