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Social networking finds niche in medical world

By Andrew Manning (Special to the Chronicle) The Internet might just be your new doctor.

This idea was met with a number of empty seats at Hofstra’s “Can Social Networking Improve Health Communication?” lecture on Tuesday.

The lecture discussed the effect that a democratized media ecosystem would have on their relationship with the world of medicine for the rest of their lives.

Lee Rainie, director of the Internet Project at Pew Research, a resource frequently used by the Lawerence Herbert School of Communication, insisted that he and his “Fact Tank” have no agenda. They simply collect data on Internet trends and present them to the public.

All the speakers spoke of social media not as a counterproductive trend, but as a shift in the way information is exchanged. The speakers said if this trend is embraced properly, it could benefit the medical field greatly.

“It’s a fad,” said Andrew Spieldenner, assistant professor of rhetoric at Hofstra, impersonating his first reaction to the world of social media. He then declared: “It’s not a fad.”

Initially hesitant about disclosing to his students that he was HIV positive, he eventually gave this up. “I realized they were just ‘Googling’ me while in class and finding out for themselves.”

Nikki Gyftopoulos, a junior public relations major, said she enjoys using the kinds of health and fitness apps discussed in the lecture.

“It kind of gives you a new perspective on social media, and health in general. A lot of people don’t see the direct effect of medicine on communication,” Gyftopoulos said.

Communication about medical issues used to place doctors in a position of total control. A patient would typically come in with a problem and a doctor would give him or her a solution.

Since the rise of information technology at the turn of the century, patients can now engage with each other like never before. Spieldenner pointed out in his presentation how men with HIV can find online communities, such as Poz.com, to exchange advice, suggest doctors or even just talk openly about their illnesses.

“I was shocked to see how many people are finding support groups online,” said Emily Lenguadoro, junior public relations major.

Rainie said that although the Internet is too often relied on for what should be doctor-given information, self-diagnosis is far from a recent invention.

“People were getting bad advice even before the Internet existed,” Rainie said.

Rainie called this a new neighborhood in the digital world, which most of us tend to take for granted. This idea was juxtaposed with the harsh reality of what Katherine Dietrich, bioethics professor at Hofstra, described as disproportionate access to care.

She stated that those without proper access to the Internet are usually the ones most likely to need medical advice.

While Rainie told the audience about different online communities raising money for a sick woman whose husband reached out via the Internet, Dietrich’s presentation stated that this kind of happy ending would be impossible for some.

“But when community, consultation and public disclosure start to happen online, they get left out of the conversation,” Dietrich said.

Most, if not all, of the Hofstra community is fortunate enough to have access to a positive network both online and offline. As current or future patients, or even friends or relatives of patients, students can take part in the increasingly democratic world of medicine in a way that would have been unimaginable just over a decade ago.

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