Viewpoints: Social media’s role in health care has unmet potential

Suppose you wake up one morning with stomach pain. You want to figure out what’s going on, so where do you go for information? You might ask family or friends. You might call your doctor. But odds are, you’ll go to the Internet.

Nearly three-quarters of adult Internet users in the U.S. report looking for health information online, with a similar proportion using social networking sites. An increasing number of people cite social networking sites as a source of medical advice and emotional support, through their personal network as well as the broader network communities. An obvious question arises: How can health care providers take advantage of social media to improve health?

In order to answer this question, we must first understand the current landscape of health information on social networking sites. I recently worked on a project to evaluate Facebook search results for common medical conditions. The research, published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, identified three key concerns. Health care providers should adopt social media strategies that address each of them.

First, a significant number of results – about 30 percent – were irrelevant to the condition searched. For instance, a search for the word “stroke” turned up several pages about a band, while a search for the word “lupus” brought up pages about the TV show “House.”

The large number of irrelevant search results reduces the accessibility of health information on social networking sites, especially for those with limited digital skills. Several studies have found that Internet skills are stratified by socioeconomic status and prior use.

This becomes especially important as providers engage with social media. Nearly one-third of hospitals and two-thirds of doctors now use social networking sites. But before they start directing patients to online resources, providers must ensure patients have the digital literacy required to effectively navigate those tools.

Second, among relevant search results, the most common results were pages devoted to marketing or promotion of products, events and institutions related to a condition (e.g., “Buy this T-shirt to raise money for cancer”). There were also a number of pages dedicated to providing medical information and offering emotional support to affected individuals.

It should come as no surprise that social networking sites are extensively used for marketing and promotion. For instance, the ALS Association has raised more than $110 million in donations through the “Ice Bucket Challenge” that went viral on Facebook.

Social networking sites are an excellent tool to raise awareness and funds. However, promotional campaigns can also come with misinformation about conditions. Even purely informational content on social media is often inaccurate.

What’s more, the connected nature of social networking sites means that a small amount of misinformation can spread to a broad audience. One study in the American Journal of Infection Control pointed out that a few hundred inaccurate tweets about antibiotic use reached an audience of millions.

As a result, patients should maintain a certain level of skepticism in seeking health information online and should double-check information before acting on it. Health care providers should also take steps to directly engage patients.

I mentioned that nearly one-third of hospitals use social media; the flip side of that is more than two-thirds of hospitals do not. Providers should build and distribute accurate medical content through social networking sites. This might take the form of summary pages about various conditions or having a medical professional answer common questions. Doing so is a cheap and effective way to give patients reliable information.

Lastly, the type of search results varied dramatically by condition. More specifically, searches for health conditions that have been stigmatized in the past (e.g., HIV/AIDS, HPV, herpes) returned far fewer pages dedicated to emotional support than non-communicable diseases (e.g., cancer).

Providers should build online support systems that reach all patients. A PricewaterhouseCoopers poll found that 40 percent of respondents would use social media to cope with chronic medical conditions. If patients are embarrassed by having a stigmatized illness though, they may lack that coping mechanism.

In the short term, providers may want to set up private groups on social networking sites in which patients can interact with other affected individuals. Setting up an anonymous network may prove to be even more useful, as anonymity has been shown to help people share more about their health. The long-term goal should be to find ways to reduce the stigma associated with certain illnesses.

Social media is still young, and its application to health care remains a work in progress. Regardless, social media has tremendous potential as a means of improving health.