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?”