This is a briefing paper which focuses on social media and their applications in healthcare. Social media have grown to be undeniable force in communication. It is a rapid and an informal system of communication that presents both massive opportunities and liabilities for healthcare providers. Effective policies of usage and training assist healthcare providers to pursue potential advantages and mitigate risks associated with social media.
What is Social Media?
Social media entail a wide range of Web-based tools that enhance quick, simple and broad communication among people (Backman et al., 2011). Presently, the most popular and widely used social media sites include Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, MySpace and YouTube. In addition, other people use blogs to express their thoughts and opinions about current issues. Social media have changed the field of communication by challenging the established traditional modes, such as print, television and radio.
As a result, social media have presented new opportunities for various organizations, including the healthcare sector. It provides a means of facilitating communication with various stakeholders in an efficient and affordable manner. Healthcare providers can promote various achievements in healthcare, warn of infectious disease outbreaks and promote new products among others. Social media, however, also present significant problems to organizations. These challenges may be related to personal privacy, reputation and the accuracy of information shared.
It is imperative to have a social media team that is set up through organizational policies. Social media policies alongside position usage guidelines could help in mitigating various risks associated with the social media. Specifically, organizations should provide education and training to their employees about social media usages and their impacts.
Healthcare and Social Media
Social media platforms have found wide applications in various healthcare settings. First, several healthcare providers rely on social media channels to engage their patients in real-time conversation. Such healthcare providers consider social media as revolutionary tools in the provision of healthcare services that will enhance the quality of healthcare and well-being of patients.
Second, healthcare providers have also used social media for marketing and communication purposes. Social media have changed the field of advertisement and mass communication. Today, many people use online information to make purchase decisions. In the healthcare setting, many patients consider social media as means of gaining access to quality information and reducing the cost of healthcare provision. Consumers are increasingly relying on online information for decision-making purposes. Consequently, healthcare products’ manufacturers and marketers have turned to social media platforms to promote their products and services. Healthcare providers also provide social media channels through which patients can share their experiences and personal stories.
Third, healthcare providers use social media to inform “consumers about their mission, vision, services and offer health education and public awareness regarding various health matters” (Backman et al., 2011). In addition, some healthcare organizations have used online platforms to create forums where people with chronic conditions can “express their experiences, get support and promote wellness” (Backman et al., 2011). Still, highly qualified physicians and nurses have used social media to discuss various medical conditions, educate the public about specific healthcare issues and coping mechanisms with the aim of ensuring optimal care and quality of life for such patients.
Fourth, healthcare organizations and individuals have used social media as platforms for advocacy and philanthropy. Such institutions and individuals publicize their services, achievements, challenges and credentials to promote healthcare services to underserved groups. They hope to receive widespread support and influence healthcare policies in specific areas.
Finally, several healthcare institutions, including healthcare use social media as “tools for recruiting new employees” (Backman et al., 2011). Such organizations post available positions on “their Web sites and use social media to search for potential recruits” (Backman et al., 2011). Many candidates tend to list their qualifications and experiences in their social media platforms, which employers use to review for potential hires.
The most important application of social media, perhaps, is in the infectious disease surveillance.
Social media for Infectious Disease Surveillance
Given that infectious disease spreads as fast as infected people can move, it is imperative to adapt the speed and flexibility that social media platforms offer for infectious disease surveillance.
New methods of infectious disease surveillance have emerged to replace conventional surveillance systems. Healthcare researchers have established new modes in social media, particularly Twitter and Facebook to offer surveillance for detecting the outbreak and spread of infectious diseases within a given place, state, region, or worldwide.
Social media, particularly Twitter and Facebook, could offer valuable public health data needed for infectious disease surveillance. The outbreak of flu in the US led to emergence of Twitter-based flu projections. There were considerable numbers of tweets about the flu, such as, “I’m so sick this week with the flu” (Sneiderman, 2013). Such comments indicated potential progress in flu cases. Therefore, the assessment of the scope and severity of disease outbreaks can be provided with the aid of collected tweets.
Chunara (2012) noted that analysis of news and Twitter feeds from earlier times of the outbreak in 2010 showed that such data were important and could be used for reporting rather than waiting for more than two weeks to get feedback from government reports. Unconventional methods of disease surveillance could be deployed globally as cost-effective and efficient methods of detecting an outbreak of an epidemic and then intervening at the right time with appropriate medication.
The major use of social media surveillance is to gather real-time data as fast as possible regarding an onset of the flu and prepare a response when necessary. This is more rapid than the traditional surveillance method in which public health providers had to collect data after the outbreak and take many weeks before informing the public.
Challenges of Social Media in Healthcare
Healthcare organizations fear bad reputations that social media platforms could generate because of the inability to influence or regulate a trending conversation. Certain conversations, whether true or false, could damage the reputation of an organization when they bear negative information. Healthcare organizations, therefore, should learn how to mitigate negative feedback that social media platforms may generate. This process requires constant staff education and training on effective usages of social media platforms for value creation.
Some observers have observed that too many tweets that relate to flu news reports and other issues that do not directly relate to the flu epidemic may influence their reliability and weaken Internet-based surveillance approaches. Presently, researchers have improved their activities to increase accuracy of tweet feeds for tracking disease outbreaks. Sneiderman writes that researchers have developed “sophisticated statistical methods based on human language processing technologies, which are designed to filter out the chatter” (Sneiderman, 2013).
There is also social media bias. The Google Flu Trends application, however, focuses on reducing issues associated with media bias. The system models look for terms to identify the most stable ones over time. The method strives to eliminate ‘noisy queries’ (searches that do not relate to changes in flu outbreaks and progression) and avoid data vulnerability.
Critics have argued that such new systems of infectious disease surveillance only offer illusion of effective disease tracking (Garrity, 2011). This could be associated with the heavy use of social media in large cities among technology savvy users. Hence, results could be skewed. Moreover, not everyone relies on social media for communication. Thus, the result might not be representative of the entire population.
Healthcare organizations must recognize that some of the risks associated with social media usages are internal. Employees must understand the influence and impact of social media on their organizations. They must also observe privacy with regard to patients’ data because irresponsible use of such information could result in legal issues.
One must note that online chat platforms could be unproductive and highly risky because they can spread propaganda, misinformation and fear, which discuss causes and cure for diseases. However, a significant number of epidemiologists have noted the benefits of social media in infectious disease surveillance. It is therefore imperative to develop social media surveillance for future tracking of infectious diseases and other emergency cases.
At the outset, people used social media to post frivolous comments about their lifestyles. These tendencies, however, have changed over time as organizations adopt social media tools for other purposes. Currently, social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, LinkedIn and other micro-blogging sites have changed to become important tools that individuals and organization use to communicate with each other to inform about emergencies, infectious diseases outbreaks, and other cases that require immediate responses.
Backman, C., Dolack, S., Dunyak, D., Lutz, L., Tegen, A., & Warner, D. (2011). Social Media + Healthcare. Journal of AHIMA, 82(3), 20-25.
Chunara, R. (2012). Social media enabled fast tracking of cholera vs. traditional surveillance. American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, 86, 39-45.
Garrity, B. (2011). Social Media Join Toolkit for Hunters of Disease. The New York Times. Web.
Sneiderman, P. (2013). Using Twitter to track the flu: Researchers find a better way to screen the tweets. Web.