Healthcare may not be the first application for social media that comes to mind, but experts predict that more than 500 million people will be using healthcare-related applications on mobile devices within five years. Many users will seek out healthcare information from trusted online sources, such as WebMD, or the Centers for Disease Control.

Healthcare consumers aren't just interested in receiving information, however.  A growing number of tech-savvy people have already started (or will start) keeping track of their health status using smartphones, mobile devices and related social media applications.  The American Heath Information Management Association is actively encouraging consumers to develop and maintain a personal health record (PHR).

PHRs can be vital in helping patients control and manage chronic conditions like diabetes, and can also provide invaluable assistance to patients, families, in-home care-givers and healthcare providers who work with patients with Alzheimer's Disease, Parkinson's Disease and other debilitating illnesses.

Social media applications that use the short-message service (SMS) protocol, like Twitter, can help patients track their compliance with medication routines, report vital statistics like blood pressure, blood glucose levels and heart rate regularly to their health care providers, and track at-home recovery progress after major surgery or childbirth.

This technology may be indispensible in areas where healthcare providers are already in limited supply.  A growing shortage of healthcare professionals in rural areas in the US means that existing providers already have a significant patient workload. By implementing electronic health records (EHR) and patient information systems that can accept information from social media applications, providers can more easily manage their patient care workloads.

Providers can advise patients based on their at-home medical observations.  Issues like chronic high blood pressure, high blood glucose or ineffective medications can be addressed more quickly because providers get updated information on a timelier basis, and can provide advice and assistance without the need to set up an office visit. At the same time, healthcare providers can offer more direct guidance to patients whose condition requires immediate or urgent medical intervention.

In a widespread emergency, social media applications can also provide a lifeline to first responders and emergency healthcare providers.  Often it is easier to find working access to the Internet than it is to find working telephone lines.  Providers can direct less critically injured or ill people to facilities that are farther away, and guide those patients in need of immediate support to the closest available providers.

In the case of disease outbreaks, social media applications can help providers keep those potentially at risk of becoming ill informed of critical symptoms, and effective avoidance measures.  Social media applications can also help providers keep public health officials informed of new cases, provide updates on existing patient loads, and help track the progress of the outbreak, as well as provide information that may be needed to identify the outbreak source(s).

In ordinary hospital and office settings, social media and mobile applications can be used to collect patient information, make notes, update medical records, insurance information and file forms directly into a centralized database.  This saves time, reduces staff effort, speeds billing and insurance reimbursements, and provides additional privacy and security for confidential patient information.