To friend or not? This is the status quo in social media. But can this be applied to specific fields such as life sciences and medicine?
The ability to collect information of individuals in online media has revolutionized the way researchers explore human society . Social systems can be seen as a nonlinear superposition of a multitude of complex social networks where the nodes represent individuals and the links between them capture the variety of different social interactions . With more than 700 million Facebook members and more than 200 million Twitter users giving opinions on products, there is an increasing number of companies utilizing social networks to reach consumers . In addition, in the Web 2.0 era, blogs for discussions, podcasts, and the emergence of different types of social media "services" (i.e.: LinkedIn, MeetUp, Anianet, etc) to connect people have helped the exchange of information in a variety of fields. In life sciences, social networks are already improving market research, physician relations, patient relations, clinical trial evaluation and medical education. Understanding how companies, especially in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology sectors, can utilize social networks will be paramount to facilitate the achievement of higher productivity in these sectors. Recent reports have shown that life sciences companies have already started to use social networks effectively to interact with external communities and collect important data .
These new tools in the web are becoming powerful platforms that will have the potential to help accelerate the diagnosis of new and undiagnosed diseases, evaluate new treatments and facilitate information exchange between healthcare professionals and patients. Last year, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) issued a funding opportunity for scientists studying how to improve public health through social networks. However, there is still some concern on regulations, especially when dealing with patient data. A recent survey demonstrated that 65 % of the life sciences companies plan to adopt social networks on a daily basis, but one third do not have plans to use it in any capacity, mainly because of regulatory uncertainty .
Even with lack of regulatory clarity as the largest barrier, a trend towards social networks and the use of social media for clinical studies by pharmaceutical companies, information exchange between physicians and scientists and other applications in life sciences are starting to become a reality. The same way social media is now part of our daily life, we believe that it could become an essential tool for life sciences.
The Impact of Social Networks in Science
Science is a word from the Latin for "knowledge", and it is defined as a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the world through collaboration. However, the main purpose of contemporary science is the achievement of specific goals by individuals using independent resources to publish articles and receive funding. Modern science is very competitive, and in the long run the knowledge we accumulate is relatively small compared to a model of scientific collaboration with the idea of sharing information. These new trends in social media can be applied to science and thereby help society reach levels of knowledge that are extraordinary. In fact, there is one social community that was launched recently and is growing fast named ReserchGate (see Table 1). This social media community already has more than 1 million members that have a profile webpage, sharing information about specific fields of their interest and also creating groups of discussion. ResearchGate has been called the Facebook of Science. Some of the features offered include sharing articles and also accessibility to a variety of peer-reviewed papers. Importantly, members of this community that have similar scientific interests can start collaborations. This is an example of social media that can improve and expand knowledge by connecting researchers from the same field globally. However, more specific regulation, mainly regarding sharing patient and sample information data for research, will be needed.
Social Networks in Medicine - Patient x Physician
Rapid communication between individual researchers and physicians across continents will allow global exchange of ideas, tools and technologies (5). People, especially patients, are individual data stores, and as online social networks link all of them, people can become part of the dynamic data warehouse. Social networks can be faster, cheaper and better data sources than any traditional way of gathering information such as registries, research panels and static databases. Examples of social media websites that are networks for information exchange between healthcare professionals include Sermo and Ozmosis (see Table 1 for all examples), and they can facilitate access to physicians' knowledge about current medical practices, decreasing the power of traditional market research. Patient networks such as Inspire and PatientsLikeMe are rich sources of patients' insights and clinical data. In the case of PatientsLikeMe, a recent report has shown how social networks of patients are also able to accelerate clinical discovery for specific diseases (this study used data from patients diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) . In fact, social networks can generate epidemiological and clinical data sets that were previously dispersed between physicians' charts, Eletronic Medical Records (EMRs) and oral clinical histories.
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