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Pros and Cons of Cancer Patients and Social Media

Analysis  |  By Christopher Cheney  
   December 26, 2018

Physicians can help their cancer patients benefit from social media while avoiding drawbacks.

Oncologists should help cancer patients be savvy about social media, recent research shows.

Earlier research has shown that judicious patient use of social media can improve health outcomes. However, benefits of social media for cancer patients such as psychosocial support and patient engagement can be offset by drawbacks including misinformation and privacy violations.

With social media's potential for both benefits and harms for cancer patients, oncologists and other healthcare providers have an obligation to help patients use social media wisely, researchers wrote this month in Journal of Oncology Practice.  

"Oncology professionals are encouraged to speak with their patients about social media and to suggest best practices to enjoy the positive and circumvent the negative aspects of social media. As social media platforms continue to modify the social landscape, the oncology community must recognize and act on their influence on patients with cancer," the researchers wrote.

The researchers highlighted five benefits for cancer patients from social media.

1. Promotes patient engagement and empowerment

The researchers reviewed 170 studies of patients using information technology, which showed 89% of the studies found positives impacts on health such as weight loss. In addition, 83% of the studies found enhanced patient engagement such as text messaging for diabetes patients to access clinical data.

The researchers also found social media can help empower patients by giving them an opportunity to mentally process their cancer experience. Earlier research has shown empowered patients are more likely to attend checkups and screenings.

2. Provides psychosocial support

Earlier research has associated social support with better physical and mental health. Social media communities can help cancer patients who do not have in-person social support by reducing social isolation. Social media can also help cancer patients have conversations about emotional, spiritual, and physical treatment barriers.

3. Offers informational support

Social media can help cancer patients find oncology information. Social media can also spark incidental learning such as hashtag searches on Twitter that inadvertently connect cancer patients with online support communities. Video platforms such as YouTube can overcome healthcare literacy barriers.

4. Enhances the physician-patient relationship

Cancer patients should not use social media to interact with their physicians, but accessing oncology information through social media can increase confidence in relationships with physicians. Experiencing physicians sharing oncology information on social media can improve patients' perceptions of medical professionals in general and improve relationships with their healthcare providers.

5. Finds clinical trials and cancer research education

Social media can help cancer patients find clinical trials for particularly isolated populations who can be reached through social media advertising. Patients with rare forms of cancer can join social media groups targeted at their diagnosis, where they can connect with trial recruiters and other research opportunities.

The Journal of Oncology Practice researchers also highlighted five social media drawbacks for cancer patients.

1. Substitute for in-person support

"Social support from social media ranges from infrequent and unstructured to regularly scheduled formal online support groups," the researchers wrote.

Behavior on social media can interfere with in-person assessment and treatment. Social media use can become impulsive, which could impede in-person interactions.

2.  Misinformation

Online health information is often unreliable compared to information from healthcare providers. Online research should form building blocks for conversations with caregivers. Cancer patients should also keep a vigilant eye on conflicts of interests such as healthcare professionals not disclosing their ties to medical supply and pharmaceutical companies, then promoting them on social media.

With the untrustworthy nature of information online, cancer patients should be skeptical of information gathered through social media and fact check with healthcare providers.

3.  Financial exploitation

For cancer patients, financial perils on social media include unproven cancer cure claims such as vitamins and special diets. Another risk is medical ads on social media that promote unnecessary procedures and treatments.

4.  Information overload

Cancer patients who have Internet access can be overwhelmed with medical information. Earlier research has linked information overload with anxiety over the inability to comprehend the avalanche of information and harness it for decision-making.

5. Compromised privacy

Social media users face privacy risks. Social media are public forums, so cancer patients should avoid posting private information. Patients should avoid sharing information that could be identifiable such as age, disease type, sex, and location.

How physicians can help

There are three primary ways healthcare providers can help cancer patients navigate social media safely and effectively, according to The Journal of Oncology Practice researchers.

  • Experience cancer-related social media, including exposure to content that patients are viewing.
  • Help patients navigate the benefits and drawbacks of social media such as gauging the social media sophistication of a patient or cautioning patients to be skeptical about information found through social media.
  • To limit privacy risks, physicians should not offer medical advice via social media or interact with their own patients via social media.

Christopher Cheney is the CMO editor at HealthLeaders.


Judicious use of social media has been linked to better health outcomes.

Healthcare providers can help guide cancer patients to positive social media experiences.

Cancer patients should have a skeptical view of information found on social media.

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