After a Diagnosis, Patients Are Finding Solace—and Empowerment—in a Sensitive Corner of Social Media

Katherine Leon and her dog enjoy nice weather in their backyard in Virginia. Leon went from feeling like she was "wandering in the woods" with doctors who hadn't experienced her spontaneous coronary artery dissection, or SCAD, to starting the world's largest registry for research on the condition.

Photo by Evan Leon

When Kimberly Richardson of Chicago underwent chemotherapy in 2013 for ovarian cancer, her hip began to hurt. Her doctor assigned six months of physical therapy, but the pain persisted.

She took the mystery to Facebook, where she got 200 comments from cancer survivors all pointing to the same solution: Claritin. Two days after starting the antihistamine, her hip felt fine. Claritin, it turns out, reduces bone marrow swelling, a side effect of a stimulant given after chemo.

Richardson isn't alone in using social media for health. Thirty-six percent of adults with chronic diseases have benefited from health advice on the internet, or know others who have. The trend has likely accelerated during COVID-19. "With increases in anxiety and loneliness, patients find comfort in peer support," said Chris Renfro-Wallace, the chief operating officer of PatientsLikeMe, a popular online community.

Sites like PatientsLikeMe and several others are giving rise to a patient-centered view of healthcare, challenging the idea that MD stands for medical deity. They're engaging people in new ways, such as virtual clinical trials. But with misinformation spreading online about health issues, including COVID-19, there's also reason for caution.

Engaged by Design

Following her diagnosis at age 50, Richardson searched the Web. "All I saw were infographics saying in five years I'd be dead."

Eventually, she found her Facebook groups and a site called Inspire, where she met others with her rare granulosa cell tumor. "You get 15 minutes with your doctor, but on social media you can keep posting until you satisfy your question."

Virtual communities may be especially helpful for people with rarely diagnosed diseases, who wouldn't otherwise meet. When Katherine Leon of Virginia suffered chest pain after the birth of her second son, doctors said it was spontaneous coronary artery dissection, or SCAD, involving a torn artery. But she had no risk factors for heart disease. Feeling like she was "wandering in the woods" with doctors who hadn't experienced her situation, she searched online and stumbled on communities like Inspire with members who had. The experience led her to start her own Alliance and the world's largest registry for advancing research on SCAD.

"Inspire is really an extension of yourself," she said. If designed well, online sites can foster what psychologist Keith Sawyer called group mind, a dynamic where participants balance their own voices with listening to others, maximizing community engagement in health. To achieve it, participants must have what Sawyer called a "blending of egos," which may be fostered when sites let users post anonymously. They must also share goals and open communication. The latter priority has driven Brian Loew, Inspire's CEO, to safeguard the privacy of health information exchanged on the site, often asking himself, "Would I be okay if a family member had this experience?"

The vibe isn't so familial on some of Facebook's health-focused groups. There, people might sense marketers and insurers peering over their shoulders. In 2018, a researcher discovered that companies could exploit personal information on a private Facebook community for BRCA-positive women. Members of the group started a nonprofit, the Light Collective, to help peer-to-peer support platforms improve their transparency.

PatientsLikeMe and Inspire nurture the shared experience by hosting pages on scores of diseases, allowing people to better understand treatment options for multiple conditions—and find others facing the same set of issues. Four in ten American adults have more than one chronic disease.

Sawyer observed that groups are further engaged when there's a baseline of common knowledge. To that end, some platforms take care in structuring dialogues among members to promote high-quality information, stepping in to moderate when necessary. On Inspire, members get emails when others reply to their posts, instead of instant messaging. The communication lag allows staff to notice misinformation and correct it. Facebook conversations occur in real-time among many more people; "moderation is almost impossible," said Leon.

Even on PatientsLikeMe and Inspire, deciding which content to police can be tough, as variations across individuals may result in conflicting but equally valid posts. Leon's left main artery was 90 percent blocked, requiring open heart surgery, whereas others with SCAD have angina, warranting a different approach. "It's a real range of experience," she explained. "That's probably the biggest challenge: supporting everyone where they are."

Critically, these sites don't treat illnesses. "If a member asks a medical question, we typically tell them to go to their doctor," said Loew, the Inspire CEO.

Increasingly, it may be the other way around.

The Patient Will See You Now

"Some doctors embrace the idea of an educated patient," said Loew. "The more information, the better." Others, he said, aren't thrilled about patients learning on their own.

"Doctors were behind the eight ball," said Shikha Jain, an oncologist in Chicago. "We were encouraged for years to avoid social media due to patient privacy issues. There's been a drastic shift in the last few years."

Jain recently co-founded IMPACT, a grassroots organization that networks with healthcare workers across Illinois for greater awareness of health issues. She thinks doctors must meet patients where they are—increasingly, online—and learn about the various platforms where patients connect. Doctors can then suggest credible online sources for their patients' conditions. Learning about different sites takes time, Jain said, "but that's the nature of being a physician in this day and age."

At stake is the efficiency of doctor-patient interactions. "I like when patients bring in research," Jain said. "It opens up the dialogue and lets them inform the decision-making process." Richardson, the cancer survivor, agreed. "We shouldn't make the physician the villain in this conversation." Interviewed over Zoom, she was engaging but quick to challenge the assumptions behind some questions; her toughness was palpable, molded by years of fighting disease—and the healthcare system. Many doctors are forced by that system into faster office visits, she said. "If patients help their doctor get to the heart of the issue in a shorter time, now we're going down a narrower road of tests."

These conversations could be enhanced by PatientsLikeMe's Doctor Visit Guide. It uses algorithms to consolidate health data that members track on the site into a short report they can share with their physicians. "It gives the doctor a richer data set to really see how a person has been doing," said Renfro-Wallace.

Doctors aren't the only ones benefiting from these sites.

Who Profits?

A few platforms like Inspire make money by connecting their members to drug companies, so they can participate in the companies' clinical trials to test out new therapies. A cynic might say the sites are just fronts for promoting the pharmaceuticals.

The need is real, though, as many clinical trials suffer from low participation, and the experimental treatments can improve health. The key for Loew, Inspire's CEO, is being transparent about his revenue model. "When you sign up, we assume you didn't read the fine print [in the terms of agreement]." So, when Inspire tells members about openings in trials, it's a reminder the site works with pharma.

"When I was first on Inspire, all of that was invisible to me," said Leon. "It didn't dawn on me for years." Richardson believes many don't notice pharma's involvement because they're preoccupied by their medical issues.

One way Inspire builds trust is by partnering with patient advocacy groups, which tend to be nonprofit and science-oriented, said Craig Lipset, the former head of clinical innovation for Pfizer. When he developed a rare lung disease, he joined the board of a foundation that partners with Inspire's platform. The section dedicated to his disease is emblazoned with his foundation's logo and colors. Contrast that with other sites that build communities at the direct behest of drug companies, he said.

Insurance companies are also eyeing these communities. Last month, PatientsLikeMe raised $26 million in financing from investors including Optum Ventures, which belongs to the same health care company that owns a leading health insurance company, UnitedHealthcare. PatientsLikeMe is an independent company, though, and data is shared with UnitedHealth only if patients provide consent. The site is using the influx of resources to gamify improvements in health, resembling programs run by UnitedHealth that assign nutrition and fitness "missions," with apps for tracking progress. Soon, PatientsLikeMe will roll out a smarter data tracking system that gives members actionable insights and prompts them to take actions based on their conditions, as well as competitions to motivate healthier behaviors.

Such as a race to vaccinate, perhaps.

Dealing with Misinformation

An advantage of health-focused communities is the intimacy of their gatherings, compared to behemoths like Facebook. Loew, Inspire's head, is mindful of Dunbar's rule: humans can manage only about 150 friends. Inspire's social network mapping suggests many connections among members, but of different strength; Loew hopes to keep his site's familial ambiance even while expanding membership. Renfro-Wallace is exploring video and voice-only meetings to enrich the shared experiences on PatientsLikeMe, while respecting members' privacy.

But a main driver of growth and engagement online is appealing to emotion rather than reason; witness Facebook during the pandemic. "We know that misinformation and scary things spread far more rapidly than something positive," said Ann Lewandowski, the executive director of Wisconsin Immunization Neighborhood, a coalition of health providers and associations countering vaccine hesitancy across the state.

"Facebook's moderation mechanism is terrible," she said. Vaccine advocates in her region who try to flag misinformation on Facebook often have their content removed because the site's algorithm associates their posts with the distortions they're trying to warn people about.

In the realm of health, where accessing facts can mean life or death—and where ad-based revenue models conflict with privacy needs—there's probably a ceiling on how large social media sites should scale. Loew views Inspire as co-existing, not competing with Facebook.

Propagandists had months to perfect campaigns to dissuade people from mRNA vaccines. But even Lewandowski's doctor was misinformed about vaccine side effects for her condition, multiple sclerosis. She sees potential for health-focused sites to convene more virtual forums, in which patient advocacy groups educate doctors and patients on vaccine safety.

Inspire is raising awareness about COVID vaccines through a member survey with an interactive data visualization. Sampling thousands of members, the survey found vaccines are tolerated well among patients with cancer, autoimmune issues, and other serious conditions. Analytics for online groups are evolving quickly, said Lipset. "Think about the acceleration in research when you take the emerging capability for aggregating health data and mash it up with patients engaged in sharing."

Lipset recently co-founded the Decentralized Trials and Research Alliance to accelerate clinical trials and make them more accessible to patients—even from home, without risking the virus. Sites like PatientsLikeMe share this commitment, collaborating with Duke's ALS Clinic to let patients join a trial from home with just two clinic visits. Synthetic control groups were created by PatientsLikeMe's algorithms, eliminating the need for a placebo arm, enabling faster results.

As for Richardson, the ovarian cancer patient, being online has given her another type of access—to experts. She was diagnosed this year with breast cancer. "This time is totally different," she said. On Twitter, she's been direct messaging cancer researchers, whose replies have informed her disease-management strategy. When her oncologists prescribed 33 radiation treatments, she counter-proposed upping the dosage over fewer treatments. Her doctors agreed, cutting unnecessary trips from home. "I'm immuno-compromised," she said. "It's like Russian roulette. You're crossing your finger you won't get the virus."

After years of sticking up for her own health, Richardson is now positioned to look out for others. She collaborated with the University of Illinois Cancer Center on a training module that lets patients take control of their health. She's sharing it online, in a virtual community near you. "It helps you make intelligent decisions," she said. "When you speak your physician's language, it shifts the power in the room."

Matt Fuchs

Matt Fuchs is a health and science writer based in Silver Spring, Maryland. He has written on a variety of health topics, including profiles of older athletes defying their ages, for publications such as The Washington Post, The Washington Post Magazine, and Medium's The Startup. He is also a science fiction author. Follow him on Twitter, @fuchswriter.

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