The Role of Social Media in Health Care: A Public Health Perspective

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Doctor sitting at his office desk, using social media on his smart phone.Social media matters across industries and health care is no exception. As more people have become active on social media, the medical field has embraced it and now incorporates social media into a number of health care strategies.

Health care organizations and medical facilities have started seriously examining social media’s role in the relationship between patients and physicians, and how that connects to various health informatics systems.

Leaders in public health realize they can build comprehensive public health care plans through social media platforms and social media-driven strategies.

Many benefits come with building effective care plans with patients and communicating with potential patients through social media platforms. However, many challenges also arise with using social media in health care. Medical professionals should be aware of the potential risks and benefits.

The Use of Social Media in Health Care

Medical professionals would do well to stay on top of social media trends so they can communicate effectively with patients.

Physicians and Doctors

Physicians can use social media tools to build interactive patient strategies, such as direct patient engagement. Through Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, doctors can reach out to potential patients and share information about their medical organization or private practice.

About 44% of individuals who research hospitals and doctors online end up scheduling an appointment, according to a study by Compete, Inc. Now more than ever, the role of social media in health care can help doctors reach out to more people.

Doctors can also help facilitate patient-to-patient communication through social media platforms. By gaining a following of patients on social media, doctors not only establish a way to regularly communicate with patients, they also pave the way for patients to establish an online community and communicate with each other.

The use of social media in health care gives physicians on-the-go access to materials that can enhance their practice, such as research data and professional idea-exchange hubs. According to the Southern Medical Association, 88% of physicians research medical tools and biotech data through the internet and social media platforms.

Nurses

While patients often look to doctors as their primary care providers, nurses play a vital role in the medical field. Some advanced level nurses, such as family nurse practitioners or pediatric nurse practitioners, can serve as the primary care providers for families and children. Like doctors, nurses can use social media in health care to update patients on news from their hospital or medical facility.

Nurses can implement social media in their practices, providing a means by which parents, patients, and caregivers can ask questions and get direct answers.

Caregivers who provide medical care for family members or who are hired to take care of patients can benefit by being able to reach out to nurses through social media. According to research by Pew Research Center, 70% of the caregivers in their study said they looked online for medical advice and answers.

Nurses can also use social media to build an online community for all the nurses working in their medical facility. Since nurses work different shifts around the clock, they can use a Facebook page to help each other stay connected.

Nurses can also use social media to reach out to nurses working in other medical facilities. They can establish online communities with nurses working in similar departments across several organizations.

Public Health Professionals and Health Educators

As more people look to social media and the internet for answers regarding medical questions, it is important for public health workers and health educators to establish an online presence.

The primary role of a public health educator is to “assess the health needs of the communities they serve,” according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. To that end, another use of social media in health care is for public health educators to create a platform where patients can voice their health concerns.

Health educators and public health workers can also play an important role by providing public health education that counters inaccurate information patients may find online elsewhere.

Forbes points out, “Most importantly, public health agencies and professionals can act on this [online] information. For example, if they are aware of an impending outbreak of an illness, they can plan for supplies and service providers to be available.”

Individuals look to health care professionals for medical advice. During outbreaks or epidemics, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, this tendency intensifies.

To help curb misinformation and the spread of dangerous health rumors, public health experts and health educators can establish themselves online as a credible source of information.

What Are the Challenges of Social Media in Health Care?

Doctors, nurses, and public health professionals use social media in health care to help promote their organizations and practices as well as to help patients access the medical information they need.

However, health care professionals face some challenges when building a comprehensive social media strategy.

HIPAA Compliance

Medical organizations and facilities must comply with many different regulations and policies to provide efficient patient care and ensure they can remain open.

One of the federal laws that health care institutions must comply with is the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), signed in 1996 by President Bill Clinton. HIPAA establishes a standard across all health care facilities that prohibits anyone from giving out information about a patient’s health information or medical records.

Since health care experts can walk a very fine line between using social media for their jobs and breaking the law, HIPAA has provided a list of guidelines that medical professionals can look to as the standard while using social media in health care.

It is important for physicians, administrators, nurse managers, and other leaders in health care to be aware of the balance between social media usage and HIPAA compliance, and train their staff accordingly.

There are numerous potential issues physicians and nurses must be mindful of when using social media tools. In recent years, several healthcare professionals have breached HIPAA rules and been fired from their jobs and pressed with criminal charges.

Health care professionals need to protect themselves and their patients when using social media, refraining from providing patients’ names, medical records or history, date of birth, medical condition, and other information.

Accuracy

Another challenge of using social media in health care is accuracy. Finding accurate public health information on social media can be difficult for individuals interested in learning about potential medical conditions, infectious diseases, and treatments.

People experiencing certain symptoms may look to social media to see what others — who have experienced the same or similar symptoms — have posted. However, these posts may be inaccurate and lack medical evidence to support them. Inaccurate information can lead individuals to think they are suffering from a medical condition when they are not or cause confusion about the necessary precautions to protect against the spread of an infectious disease.

For example, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, a vast amount of misinformation has been posted on social media from people and news outlets around the world. People seeking information about how quickly the virus can spread and how it can be prevented have found posts on social media that present differing information and opinions, making it difficult to determine what is accurate. In fact, around two-thirds of Americans said that at least some news and information they’ve seen about the coronavirus seemed completely made up, according to a Pew Research Center survey.

The spread of misinformation on social media impacts the work of public health professionals and hinders their ability to keep the public informed about critical health issues. Public health organizations and professionals must continually monitor the spread of inaccurate health information and dispel myths by providing research-supported resources to the public.

Professionalism

Another concern physicians may have about using social media is the need to maintain their professionalism with patients and colleagues. Being too personal or casual on social media could affect their credibility.

In addition, medical professionals and doctors want to counter health care misinformation in public health situations and don’t want to risk providing misinformation or contributing to medical controversies themselves.

Allotted Time

Time constraints are another challenge health care professionals deal with when using social media in health care. Doctors and primary care providers are typically booked with back-to-back, 15- to 30-minute appointments every day. When they do have free time, they often see walk-in patients or those who made appointments at the last minute. Because of this, it can be a challenge for doctors to regularly post on their social media platforms.

Since many people actively use social media every day, those with an interest in health issues may be looking to follow doctors or medical professionals who post on a daily or weekly basis.

What Are the Benefits of Social Media in Health Care?

Despite the various challenges that come with using social media in health care, social media usage can enhance a health care professional’s ability to administer optimal care to patients.

Many benefits can outweigh the challenges of using social media platforms.

Benefits for Patients

Social media’s ability to connect directly with patients could substantially improve the professional dynamic between patients and the field of health care overall. According to a study by the Journal of Medical Internet Research, 80% of internet users in the U.S. conduct personal health research online.

It follows that if medical professionals keep up a regular presence on social media, they can help these millions of people better understand health issues and how to deal with them.

In this way, patients can get information directly from their doctors, nurses, and public health professionals online. Individuals can share posts and updates with their family, friends, and followers. Using social media in health care can help with patient engagement as it keeps them constantly informed and updated.

Behavioral counseling. Social media can also help individuals with specific health problems. According to the American Journal of Public Health, “social media platforms appear to be an effective way to offer behavioral counseling aimed at smoking cessation and other types of health behavior change.”

While individuals in need of counseling are likely to get help from doctors and counselors in person, social media offers a platform where doctors and counselors can regularly offer extra guidance and support to patients between visits.

Benefits for Younger Patients

In recent times, younger generations of individuals have been looking more to the internet for medical information than to doctors. Baby boomers and individuals in Generation X regularly visit their doctors and primary care providers.

However, according to a study by the American Psychological Association, millennials are the most stressed generation, yet only 7% regularly schedule preventive health care appointments.

Source of medical information. Even though millennials deal with emotional, physical, psychological, and mental problems, they are more likely to get information from online sources than see a doctor in person.

Since millennials tend to be the most connected on social media platforms, they are regularly getting advice from their friends and followers as well as looking to see what others are doing about similar issues. Because of this, those most benefiting from social media in health care could potentially be younger patients, such as millennials, who may otherwise not reach out to health care experts.

Benefits for Health Care Workers

While using social media in health care has clear benefits for patients, it also yields benefits for health care workers. Because of its collaborative nature, social media allows doctors and primary care providers to reach out to each other and share information.

It can allow doctors to discuss:

  • Pharmaceutical options
  • Changes in policies and regulations
  • Updates in biotech data
  • Successful surgical procedures
  • Patient needs and questions

Discussing health issues with colleagues. Providing doctors with media outlets can allow them to reach out to their colleagues and have conversations with other experts in the field. Social media can also do the same for registered nurses, nurse practitioners, nurse managers, and nurses with other specialties.

Whether nurses work in hospitals, outpatient care centers, nursing homes, rehabilitation facilities, schools, patients’ homes, or nonprofit organizations, they can benefit by being able to discuss health issues with other nurses.

For instance, nurses can connect with one another to see how other nurses are handling major health issues and ongoing crises, such as COVID-19.

Social media platforms can also serve as public health forums for public health professionals and health educators. Individuals across a variety of diverse communities look to health educators for information about certain conditions and disease prevention.

The role of social media in health care can be beneficial for public health experts by helping them spread information easier and faster. This ability has become especially valuable during the coronavirus epidemic when sharing timely updates.

Social media platforms can also help medical professionals train their staff in new health care policies or procedures. Whether they are hosting conferences or small trainings, medical professionals can spread pertinent information by having everyone share Facebook posts or use the same Twitter hashtags.

Benefits for Health Care Organizations

Since health care organizations promote their facilities through different marketing strategies, using social media can help on several levels. Social media can primarily spread awareness about what the specific organization can offer patients in terms of medical care. It can inform the public about what advanced technology or treatments the facility offers.

Social media is also one of the most cost-effective distribution tools for health care information. According to WEGO Health, social media advertisements have a higher return on investment (ROI) than any other form of advertisement in health care. These results for using social media in health care advertising show that medical organizations can increase the number of people they reach while spending the same amount of money.

The Use of Social Media Marketing in Health Care

Since many health care organizations see the benefits of incorporating social media in health care, they are implementing social media marketing strategies. Social media can be an effective marketing tool for physicians and health care facilities looking to grow their practice and patient base.

Strategies

Industry influencers. Health care professionals can incorporate specific strategies within their overarching marketing strategy, such as the use of industry influencers. Social media users are accustomed to looking for guidance from influencers, such as celebrities, activists, musicians, popular culture icons, artists, and others who have a large social media following.

Health care organizations can take advantage of this and promote their own medical influencers and other influential people in health care. Since doctors are reputable and have credibility, people are more likely to follow them and look to them for medical information.

Multimedia content. Another strategy professionals can use to incorporate social media in health care is moving to multimedia content. Even though an organization may have a large Facebook following, they can begin to establish themselves on Twitter and Instagram as well.

Research has shown that people are responsive to videos, so regularly posting content on YouTube can also be an effective strategy.

Health care apps. Apps are growing in importance, and there are now about 300,000 health apps for mobile devices. Through social media, professionals in health care can promote different apps for helping patients with nutrition, exercise, or managing stress.

Public education. Social media marketing strategies can also incorporate opportunities to educate the public on care policies and practices. According to a Middleberg Communications survey, 70% of journalists use social media and social networks when reporting.

By posting accurate content online through infographics and posting on social media platforms, medical professionals can directly reach patients as well as indirectly reach the larger public.

The Future of Social Media in Health Care

Social media’s proliferation in society has made its use in health care increasingly common. It is important that health care professionals continue to find the best uses for these platforms in their future care delivery strategies.

While using social media in health care can pose certain challenges, it can have many benefits for patients of all ages, nurses, doctors, public health professionals, and the field of health care overall.

Students and professionals interested in the impact of social media on health care can look into becoming public health professionals or marketing professionals in the field of health care. If you are excited about the role of social media in health care, explore how Ohio University’s online Master of Public Health program can help you gain the knowledge and skills needed to be a trusted authority in the health care field.

Recommended Readings

How to Become a Health Educator
MPA vs. MPH: Which One Is Right for You?
Public Health vs. Medicine: What’s the Difference?

Sources:

American Academy of Family Physicians, “Study Links Social Media Posts, Professional Credibility”
American Journal of Public Health, “Public Health in the Era of Social Media”
Bureau of Labor Statistics, Health Educators and Community Health Workers
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC Calls on Americans to Wear Masks to Prevent COVID-19 Spread
Forbes, “Can Social Media Have a Positive Impact on Global Healthcare?”
Forbes, “Millennials and Healthy Living: It’s About Online Content, Not Doctors’ Visits”
Get Healthy Stay Healthy, “Are Health Apps Beneficial to Your Health?”
The Harvard Gazette, “Battling the ‘Pandemic of Misinformation'”
Healthcare Weekly, “Healthcare Social Media Strategy: 5 Ways to Build Trust”
HIPAA Journal, HIPAA Social Media Rules
Independent, “Revealed: How Dangerous Fake Health News Conquered Facebook”
Journal of Medical Internet Research, “Health Information Obtained From the Internet and Changes in Medical Decision Making: Questionnaire Development and Cross-Sectional Survey”
Journal of Medical Internet Research, “Use of Social Media Across US Hospitals: Descriptive Analysis of Adoption and Utilization”
Pew Research Center, “About Seven-in-Ten U.S. Adults Say They Need to Take Breaks From COVID-19 News”
ReferralMD, “Benefits of Utilizing Social Media in the Health Care Industry”
ReferralMD, “Where Social Media and Health Informatics Intersect”
WEGO Health, “The ROI of Social Media in Healthcare: 10 Benefits”
WEGO Health, “50 Social Media Healthcare Statistics to Watch”