The Future of Social Media in Health - Part One
Those of us working at the intersection of social media and health have to become adept at thinking across two very different time scales: short and long.
Social media has been a mass phenomenon for less than five years and moves very fast, at digital speed. To take the most obvious examples, Facebook launched in 2004, topped 5.5 million users at end 2005 and hit 500 million around mid-2010. In the time it takes a medical researcher to get some solid clinical results, founder Mark Zuckerberg has become a billionaire. Twitter launched in 2006 and announced 100 million new accounts registered in 2010 taking overall registered users to around 175 million.
Contrast with health care. It wasn’t always a mass phenomenon, but it has been for several generations now. Changes happen slowly, at speeds determined by biology and bureaucracies. Today’s obesity epidemic hasn’t happened suddenly; it’s been developing over decades and it’s a long-term task for individual consumers to shed the weight and keep it off. Lifestyle- and environmentally-related health problems typically take years to manifest and remedying them can take years to bear fruit. And reliable fixes don’t come up quickly. According to New York-based pharma consultant Dr. Sally Church, most new drugs take 10-12 years to get to market.
The quick-slow scales also apply to statistics and information. The data for Internet and social media usage tends to be reported quickly; in this fast-moving environment anything more than a few months old risks being out of date. The statistics for health care take longer to collect and report; data from as recently as a few months ago is about as good as it gets.
Part of the challenge for everyone working in health care, including for us at Euro RSCG Life 4D is how to use the power of digital speed and its short time horizons to build towards the long-term outcomes that are needed in health care.
In this three-part blog, we look at ways in which social media can become integrated into the fabric of our nation’s health care; we look at how it can and must become a means of fostering all-round well-being, from simple fitness all the way through treatment adherence to chronic disease management, from improving health care communication through to achieving cost savings. Finally we look at how it may achieve unexpected network health benefits.
Learning to seek quality information
One of the great benefits of the Internet is that it makes virtually unlimited information available to anyone who cares to seek it out. Whether your interest is in hip-and-thigh diets, flu precautions or the intricacies of protease inhibitors and molecular medicine, it’s all there from multiple sources in most of the world’s major languages. Thanks to user-friendly publishing software, anyone who wants to can post their opinions on websites and blogs, and draw attention to them with social media.
Consumers are no longer dependent on their physician, their library and their family and friends for health care information. At any time, 24/7 they search the web or social media to check out published information online and find forums where their topic is discussed. In the past eight years the numbers of American adults going online for health has leaped from 63 million in 2002 to 169 million in 2010. A substantial 112 million adults went online for pharmaceutical information in 2010; that’s probably at least 100 million more than consulted printed pharma information or paper-based formularies in pre-Internet times.
Tapping online resources is becoming even more pervasive as consumers increasingly use mobile devices to seek information anywhere and at any time. Half of all Google searches are now conducted through mobile channels; 20 million US adults access health info from mobile devices. The Apple store has 40 apps developed by pharma companies and pharma is developing mobile apps that take advantage of the location-based capabilities of mobile devices, helping to guide users to resources wherever they are.
No wonder it’s not at all uncommon now for consumers to arrive at a consultation with print-outs of information. No wonder growing numbers of consumers are familiar with medical and pharmaceutical terms. Surveying a large sample of Americans online, we found that almost one third (32 percent) take information they have found online to their medical appointments. When health and costs are at stake, it makes a lot of sense for patients to do their homework to get maximum value. This has led to “Pre-Visit Patients”, a newly defined sub-segment of online consumers identified as those who have a scheduled physician appointment or will visit a physician within the next 30 days; in other words, these are people with a specific need for information and a specific time and place to use it. What are they looking for? A survey on HealthGrades.com found that the most useful item they could find would be a list of questions to ask their physician, specific to their condition or symptoms.
Finding worthwhile information still takes practice and skill with search engines, but now it’s infinitely faster and easier than ever before. Our own survey found 90 percent of consumers would turn to online sources for health-related information in general and 82 percent have turned to the Internet for information about a particular health treatment.
Unfortunately it’s also a lot faster and easier to find misinformation and even disinformation. In a web browser on a computer or smart phone screen it’s hard to assess the quality of information from the name or the design of a site. Some eminent health care resources have sites that look suspiciously home-made (example) while it’s easy for more dubious sources to mount a persuasive façade of slick design and impressive references. You can’t judge the quality of information from the look of the website.
The challenge for consumers is not just finding information and opinions; it’s learning how to evaluate the quality of information online. They have to develop some of the skills that good researchers and good journalists have: challenging information rather than taking it at face value: tracking back from secondary sources to primary sources: seeking different opinions on the same topic, and weighing up the information they’ve gathered. In most Google searches at least one Wikipedia entry is high on the list, so it’s surprising that 89% of pharma companies don’t have a policy to keep Wikipedia up to date.
Emerging good-quality sources
In the peer-to-peer, many-to-many environment of the Internet and social media, each individual has an utterly unique network and range of information sources. It’s potentially bewildering but it offers great scope for high-quality sources to gain reputation and stand out at every level on social media and web sites: individual consumers, commentators and experts, brands and corporations, and official sources such as the CDC and Department of Health.
Health care professionals have a head start here. They tend to be ahead of the curve in using web and mobile applications for their work, so they’re well placed to guide consumers to find useful online resources. Consumers in turn should be able to expect to leverage their personal physician's insight and expertise to guide their searches and build their own knowledge.
As increasing numbers of people spend increasing amounts of their time online with social media, there is every good reason for health care professionals to be engaged in social media too and make smart use of the tools and the connections. Social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter are certainly gaining traction within the health care community; they provide a ready-made framework that can guide search queries and information retrieval. Professionals can not only provide their own views on specific health care topics, they can also embed links to external resources, building their reputation and appeal as the go-to experts.
With its emphasis on interaction, social media provides great scope for bringing together people who share specific health care interests and have specific health care needs. At their best, sites can provide expert articles on important topics along with a vibrant forum section where consumers at every level of expertise can ask questions, offers answers, argue and debate and generally engage with the subject.
Making sure it’s SOCIAL media
At this stage in the rapid development of online resources it’s important to make a distinction between professionally-written information sites with a comment facility and true social media sites; they’re not the same thing. Newspapers, magazines, specialist blogs and specialist health sites typically allow readers to leave comments. However, in most instances the professional content is what draws readers and they would come even if there were no comments; there is little peer-to-peer interaction and no network of “regulars”.
The essence of true social media sites is that they provide the means for people to interact peer-to-peer, to learn from each other and to develop a sense of community. As we outline in part three of this blog series, the wider network of connections is an important element in improving health.
There is an opportunity and indeed a need for health and pharma professionals to be part of social media interactions provided they understand one vital point; social media is about personal interactions. That means interactions between individuals. This sort of interaction is a great way to build trust, and brands have a glaring need for consumers’ trust. An annual poll by Harris Interactive shows that just 11 percent of Americans trust statements from pharmaceutical and drug companies, a lower eight percent trust health insurance companies and an even lower seven percent trust managed care companies such as HMOs. Consumers tend to assume that statements from companies in those industries will not be trustworthy.
This mistrust may or may not be down to prejudice, but it’s a fact of life and is hard to shift, however good a brand’s products may be. Most consumers are not sufficiently specialized to evaluate the scientific quality of detailed medical and pharmaceutical information, so they have to rely on intermediaries such as medical journalists to interpret the information. This good news is that social media is the ideal environment for new intermediaries to establish trust and credibility for themselves and for the brands they represent.
The health care and pharma brands that will best succeed in getting a reputation for quality and building strong trusted relationships with consumers in social media will be those that:
- Interact with consumers through named and identifiable individuals
- Interact as real humans rather than brand “suits” mouthing a predictable company line
- Interact honestly and openly with no hidden agendas
- Provide the most complete information, with declarations of interest where relevant
- Treat social media as a means of providing help and service, with the brand supporting and not trying to hog the attention.