The role of social media on health communication
In the time since they first emerged in the early 2000s, social media have truly become the norm. Today they are widely used by individuals and businesses to communicate and stay connected; indeed, they are ubiquitous. As different sites evolved and became an essential medium for reaching out to consumers, healthcare professionals also found themselves exploring new opportunities to interact with patients, the public, policymakers and each other, in order to share and access information instantly and communicate effectively.
Communications professionals and community managers are effectively moving away from traditional advertising techniques and instead utilising marketing tactics to make use of social media in the healthcare field. With the onset of patient engagement on social media, consumers tend to rely on online information for their health-related concerns as well as making informed decisions in the selection of healthcare providers and hospitals.
Despite patients being central to healthcare delivery and medicine development, their input has not always been considered by providers. However, this is changing rapidly as patients are acquiring a stronger role across a range of dimensions and patient-centered healthcare has emerged as a key domain of quality. An example is Patient Focused Medicines Development (PFMD), an initiative making active use of social media to integrate the voice of patients and make noise around their unmet needs while also aggregating existing tools and good practices in an online hub, making them available for stakeholders to adopt systematic patient engagement.
Consumers are also turning to the internet for resources to help in their research or to share experiences with healthcare providers and other related patients and organisations. The Share4Rare platform is a perfect example of the intelligent use of digital media as it connects the rare disease community from around the world and provides them with a safe space to share knowledge and data to advance research in rare diseases. The initial research projects are focused on rare tumours and neuromuscular diseases but if someone is related to any other disease, they are welcomed to join the community to connect with people with a similar condition and push research in that area.
It has been estimated that 70% of US healthcare organisations use social media, and similarly, in the UK National Health Service, 4 in 5 organisations use at least one social media channel for communication and engagement (source), further amplifying the major shift of patient-centered healthcare, social media and the internet coming together with impactful and unprecedented consequences.
While social media offer the possibility of providing users with up-to-date information when, where, and how they want it, they also brings with it some challenges putting community managers and communications professionals in a highly responsible position. It is essential to be active and consistent on the social media profiles of organisations and ensure the accuracy of information shared with consumers due to its obvious careful application. Experts also need to research thoroughly and acquire analytical skills to evaluate the impact of their healthcare communication and its application with patients and consumers.
This paradigm shift of patients becoming more engaged and involved when it comes to healthcare and medication inevitably leads to patients turning to the internet and social media to access information and advice. A ‘perfect storm’ is brewing, which needs to be dealt with cautiously by communication professionals who must ensure the quality of information and communication during the time of crisis providing real-time updates to maximise the potential of digital media.