Nearly two-thirds of all Americans use social networking sites (1). Considering that these sites are largely an invention of the last decade, the uptake of social media in such a short amount of time is astounding. This degree of usage, coupled with the fact that about 68% Americans own smartphones (2), means that the majority of us are walking around connected to seemingly limitless, invisible networks of individuals at any given moment. This connectedness undoubtedly has implications for public health, and, as public health professionals, we have an obligation to draw upon these tools to find ways to improve the well-being of others.
I have been researching the use and implications of social media in health for several years, and my experiences have shown me four primary ways in which these technologies can have an impact:
Disseminating health information and education to the public. Because so many individuals use social media sites, public health professionals and health educators now have access to large, targeted populations. Whether it is through ads on social networking sites or accounts associated with a given organization, we have free and easy venues for distributing health messages. Organizations like Mayo Clinic (3) have truly grasped the potential of these technologies, utilizing multi-platform messaging and delivering engaging, informative messages to the public. We still don’t know much about the effectiveness of messages delivered via social media in terms of health outcomes, but the benefits of extended reach and interactivity are undeniable.
Facilitating communication and support exchange between those who are coping with health issues. One of the more popular social health sites is PatientsLikeMe (4), which is essentially a social networking site that allows individuals to find others who have similar health concerns. They can share health metrics, anecdotes, and support, and there are many stories of those whose healthcare was significantly impacted by their experiences on the site. But it’s not just these health-specific sites that have promise for facilitating communication—I performed a study with several colleagues in which we examined how Facebook is used to receive health-related social support (5). We found that those who use the site for this purpose do report having higher levels of support, which in turn can impact their beliefs about their own ability to manage their health. Clearly, there is great potential for using social sites in this manner, and it can be especially beneficial for those dealing with rarer or more socially-isolating health conditions.
Providing a data source for determining current health issues and attitudes. Social sites like Twitter provide rich sources of information about the public’s health and well-being. Individuals have a tendency to tweet about their everyday lives and occurrences, including moments of illness, as well as their opinions about specific health topics. So, if you have the tools to sort through all the social media posts available, sites like these can provide an almost real-time picture of the public’s sentiments and health status. Researchers have done just that, analyzing Twitter posts to examine a variety of health topics, including influenza rates (6), beliefs about vaccines (7), and smoking (8). Tweets have been shown to be actually indicative of illness outbreaks (6), so the potential for using these sites as a snapshot of public health is especially exciting.
Connecting health professionals and facilitating the exchange of expertise.Last but not least, social media sites provide a great tool for sharing information among health professionals and health educators. With sites like the Lab, those of us who work in health now have the ability to network with and solicit insight from health professionals across the globe—something which was extremely difficult before social media sites came to be. We can now easily learn from each other, working in a collaborative and open environment that will ultimately benefit the many patients and populations we serve.
As I bring this post to a close, I hope I have made it clear that social media sites are not to be ignored or trivialized in public health. While there is still much to be explored and much to learn about the best ways to use social media, the role and impact of these sites will only continue to grow in the years to come.