How To Use Social Media to Improve Health Outcomes

In graduate school, I had to take a class on healthcare management, one I dreaded passionately each and every week. As a student studying health behavior, I didn’t see how learning marketing principles and business branding practices would ever factor into my career path.

With the exception of administration, most healthcare workers don’t put too much thought into building an online brand. “I don’t care about the business side. I just want to help people,” is a common refrain among medical professionals. But maybe we should be caring more about “the business side.”

The internet, social media in particular, is a source of incredible power, one in which we have access to millions of people, straight from our keyboards. Hospital CEOs became attuned to this information early, and use it to recruit patients to their facilities, primarily by using success stories and anecdotes like this one:

At 3 months old, Gwen was not using the right side of her body. Despite a seemingly normal pregnancy and delivery, she was diagnosed as having had a stroke in the womb. See Gwen’s story and the incredible progress she’s making with the help of her UH Rainbow care team.

Posted by University Hospitals on Friday, November 6, 2015

While these focus on the treatment of disease, researchers are also beginning to discover that building a social media presence can actually help prevent complications associated with chronic disease and improve health outcomes. But how do you tap into this vast potential? We’ll give you some tips to get you started on improving the health in your community.

Stimulate The Conversation

What separates social media from all other forms of communication: radio, TV, print ads – is the idea that we can have an authentic conversation. If you work in the health field in any capacity, you’re probably familiar with Social Cognitive Theory, a concept championed by Albert Bandura in the 1970s. In a landmark paper in 2004, he posited that the underlying constructs of his theory could be applied to influence health behaviors.

Of these constructs, collective and self-efficacy have the greatest potential for change on a social media platform. In a recent meta-analysis of health interventions involving social media, researchers found a positive association with social media support and improved health outcomes associated with chronic disease. For example, one study found that support on social media platforms lead to enhanced weight loss maintenance; another found that social support lead to better coping skills with long-term physical pain.

Apply It: Consider recommending an app (or creating your own!) that allows your target population to connect with their peers. For weight loss, this may be an app that allows users to track the amount of calories that they take in, as well as the amount they burn through a variety of exercises. For those suffering from long term pain, creating a Facebook group where they can connect with others suffering from the same complications can provide a forum to improve their management skills.

Strengthen Patient Engagement

It’s a well-established belief that patients, who are engaged in their health as well as in their relationship with their practitioner, achieve better health outcomes than those who are not. One of the easiest ways to increase patient engagement? Through the use of visuals.

Visual cues, like those found on Instagram, are easier for the average viewer to digest. In a world where you have 15 seconds to make an impression online, and where the average physician/patient encounter is 8 minutes, social media bites are becoming an important tool in encouraging healthy behaviors away from the clinician’s office.

But is an Instagram worth a thousand words? Researchers seem to think so. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Michigan’s Center for Health Communications Research recently teamed up to create Visualizing Health, a project dedicated to disseminating risk information through graphics. Using the basic premise that communicating health information is hard, especially for those operating at lower levels of literacy, the organization sought to make appealing visuals that will strengthen patient engagement and increase compliance.

Consider this example, which breaks down epidemiological concepts into an easy to read graphic about measles transmission to increase vaccine compliance:

Sample of health client engagement through images

Putting health information into an appropriate context makes it easier for people to absorb. Creating visuals using social media outlets is just one way to strengthen patient engagement, in an atmosphere where patients are spending less time with their primary care doctors than ever before.

Apply It: Try using the Visualizing Health wizard to create your own graphics to disseminate on social media. Or, try taking a picture of a patient with the flu and using it as a sounding board to strike up a conversation about prevention.

Use Social Marketing

Applying the basic concepts of social marketing to your social media outreach strategy is an easy way to garner more followers to influence behavior change. In case you’re feeling rusty, the primary considerations include:

  • Start with audience most ready for action
  • Encourage small, simple steps in behavior change
  • Remove barriers
  • Promote a service or product to achieve behavior change
  • Have fun with your messaging

In the case of social media marketing, your primary audience (if you’re just starting out) should be millennials, who are two times more likely to use social media for health conversations. As you expand your total number of followers, you can vary your scope to reach older adults.

Privacy Considerations

In the health field, it’s an absolute essential to have an explicitly written, legally-binding social media policy. With patient privacy a constant concern, you should have a clear process for obtaining informed consent before posting anything to social media. Work with your human resources and legal department to outline the rules before you post your first inspirational anecdote.

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Sarah Voightman

Sarah is a displaced Michigander who currently calls suburban Cleveland home. When not reading or writing, she can be found navigating the tumultuous waters of parenthood and dreaming of returning to her beloved Mitten State.

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