Ninety-nine Percent of Online Health Odysseys *Don’t* Start With Social

Posted by: in Healthcare Insights, Social Media Insights & Trends on January 26, 2013

Last week, the Pew Internet & American Life Project dropped one of their wonderful reports on the use of the Internet for health. It’s incredibly dense with data, and if you’re in the digital health industry, you can expect to see facts from the report in your PowerPoints for the foreseeable future.

But there’s one fact that marketers might be slower to pluck out of the Pew report, but it’s worth highlighting anyway. Pew asked respondents: “… thinking about the LAST time you went online to look for health information… How did you begin looking?” Seventy-seven percent responded with a search engine, 13 percent cited a health information site and 2 percent cited Wikipedia or something similar. Limping in at 1 percent was “at a social network site like Facebook.”

Put more hyperbolically, people are 1,200 percent more likely to use a health information site to begin their search for health information than social networking. They’re 77 times more likely to pull up Google, Bing or the like. Social networks rank below “don’t know” in terms of a starting place for information-seeking.

To be sure, this isn’t entirely surprising. The architecture of social networks isn’t designed to make specific, factual information available quickly and easily. That’s not a health-specific issue, either: when I want to check cooking times for broiling fish, I don’t pull up Pinterest.

Yet much of the discussion about engaging on social media in the digital health space is focused on bulking up the information available on those platforms: creating fact-stuffed infographics or well-referenced status updates or compelling, actionable tweets. In short, a lot of strategy is focused on content. The Pew findings suggest that such efforts are lost, at least lost on those in the early stages of their health journey.

At the same time, there is a flowering of examples of social media being used to create patient communities and support services. I’ve talked about #BCSM before, but it’s worth pointing that gang out again. The diabetes community is tightly connected by social media. Lung cancer advocate Jennifer Windrum used Facebook as a platform to raise $35,000 to give sock monkeys to cancer patients. And that’s to say nothing of health-specific communities that run the gamut from CaringBridge to PatientsLikeMe.

Those examples, contrasted with the Pew data, illuminate the benefit of social media in health: not as a standalone information source, but as a connector of individuals. That’s advice that’s dangerously close to sounding cliched, but it doesn’t make it wrong. And there’s no doubt that the next time I sit behind a keyboard with the intention of banging out some sort of health-related missive, I won’t ask: “will this make patients smarter?” Instead, I’ll ask: “will this bring patients closer together?”

By: Brian Reid

Brian Reid is a managing director at W2O Group, where he oversees influencer relations. He is a former journalist who believes content really is king.

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5 Responses

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  1. Thanks, Brian! I recall smiling when I first saw the result about Facebook. I had a hunch it would turn out low, but 1% is pretty darn low. Why did I smile? Because I hoped it would put to rest the canard that social networks are a top source of health information. Yes, social is important, particularly among people living with rare and chronic conditions, but Pew Internet’s research shows that it is a small part of most people’s health information diets.

    I’m going to email Jonathan Richman to be sure he saw these findings, since he wrote what I think was a definitive post on this topic:

    As I said then: “It worries me that people are so eager to promote a sensational headline. The goal of research should be to help people make good decisions based on sound data. Facebook is not a dominant source for health information. Not even close.”

    And now we have fresh data.

  2. I think that remembering search is important. And I agree that “social” isn’t a panacea of health solutions. But I do fear that this viewpoint is perhaps a bit misleading as to the role that “social” plays in health.

    First, there are hundreds (thousands?) of online health communities that are providing tremendous value for physicians, patients and researchers. And while Google may be the first stop, it’s not nearly as important as *where google takes them for the second stop.* In other words, it’s not where the info-seeking journey STARTS that’s most important; it’s where it ENDS.

    Second, while search may be the first intentional, proactive step at the start of a health journey … search is increasingly circumvented by social. You’ve probably heard this statement before: “You don’t have to worry about finding the news anymore. When you’re plugged in to the right social networks, the right news finds you first.” I’d argue that the same is true for information about health. It’s increasingly likely to find me through facebook or twitter before I ever think to go look for it.

    And lastly, while we don’t know the ins-and-outs of Google’s search algorithms, there are strong indications that content frequently shared via social channels tends to drive up the “google juice” for that content … making it more likely that those who are seeking health information will find that information that others have (through their SOCIAL behavior) deemed to be valuable enough to share.

    So while everything here is factually correct, I wonder if it isn’t selling short the value of social as a driver of health literacy (and ultimately, we hope, better health outcomes).

  3. Greg Matthews: I’ll agree with you on the first point: social remains a great place to create and strengthen communities of the already-diagnosed. And that seems to be the place to play, if you want to get into health and into social. But that’s tough and it’s dangerous and it involves building relationships and participating, and that’s raised barriers to entry. That’s not to say some folks aren’t trying, only that it’s a lot easier to crack out an infographic …

    But I think that what the new data suggests is that your second point isn’t right (at least not yet). Health information isn’t really finding people via social. It’s entirely possible that will change (I’m curious as hell about graph search and health), but we’re still in a Dr. Google world, not a Dr. Facebook one.

    And though I’m skeptical, I’m not saying social for health is a “canard.” Though I know of some experts who might feel that way (thanks for the comment, Susannah Fox!). It certainly has a place in our information journey. We just need to realistic about where that is …

  4. Bob Merberg said

    I saw Greg’s tweet inviting others to join the discussion. I don’t have a horse in this particular race, so I approach it more as a user. I agree with the consensus that social can and does meet the needs of people seeking community around health issues. I, personally, would be so strongly disinclined to seek health information via social, I couldn’t help but wonder — as I read Brian’s post — why anyone would think that people *would* seek health info via social.

    I think of social as predominantly…well, um…social. (Of course, there are exceptions). If I compare it to a previous time and place, I might think of search as being like the library, and social as being like the village square. If I wanted facts about a health condition, I’d go to the library. If I wanted to meet people with the condition, I might try the square. Of course, when I meet those people, I might learn something about the condition (just as I might happen to learn from people via social), but whether those findings are truly considered information, I suppose, depends on the individual. I would file them away as hearsay. Any chance that, in this discussion, what we’re seeing is a difference in values regarding “info” conveyed via the community?

    Reminds me a bit of a National Business Group on Health survey conducted a couple of years ago, which found that 8 of 10 employees surveyed did not want to receive health benefit information via Twitter. Huh? I love Twitter. But why would I want to get benefit information through it?

  5. Greg, I couldn’t agree more on your cautionary words regarding the value of “social” in health, but the truth is that there is an opportunity if privacy and security could be guaranteed. Peer-to-peer support is definitely happening, as the report points out that about one in every four turn to their friends and families for health support. The next step is making sure that information is validated and clinician direction is in the mix – that’s how social becomes a valuable care resource in addition to support, especially for that 70% that reports they still turn to their provider when it comes to serious health questions.

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