The pros, cons of social media in health communications

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 - Damian Roland
Dr. Damian Roland, MD. Photo courtesy of the University of Leicester.

The use of social media in disseminating clinical information, studies, trials and healthcare news is slowly emerging to a point of normalcy. However, the credit social media receives as a news liaison falls short. According to statistics, roughly two billion people worldwide are social media users, with that number expected to double by 2018. So why might there be little attention on social media in health communications?  

Damian Roland, MD, explained in his article published in the November issue of Journal of the American College of Radiology, focused on social media in radiology, "social movements have also embraced social media as a means of spreading their aims and reaching a wide audience, however its impact on health policy is seldom considered." Roland is currently a consultant and honorary associate professor in pediatric emergency medicine at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom. He also serves as the social media editor for Pediatric Research.  

His most recent article, "Social Media, Health Policy, and Knowledge Translation," leaves readers with four main take away points:  

  • Social media is associated with the generation of communities of practice that promote the transfer of information at scale.
  • How social media definitively affects health policy is not clear, and evidence is scant.
  • It will be necessary to generate scholarship and academic interest, specifically in relation to the role of social media in health policy.
  • Twelve potential limitations policymakers may wish to consider noted in literature regarding social media and health communication (including lack of reliability, confidentiality and privacy, and overload of information and the dissemination of false information and analysis).

In regards to his findings, along with what he has learned from his own clinical and social media experience professionally, Roland explained what he believes are the top limitations of social media in health communications.  

The first limitation: brevity at the expense of content.  

"Trying to keep things to a short narrative with high visual impact often means excluding nuances which are important to the discussion," Roland told Health Imaging.  

The second limitation of social media in health communications is the variety of social media platforms that different kinds of groups are inclined to use. Roland explains that discussions will vary in length, topic, and quality due to the distinct nature of each social media platform.  

For example, Roland says that a discussion on Twitter may take place with a very different stakeholder than those one would find on Facebook. Therefore, taking feedback from just one group from one platform may result in biased opinions surrounding healthcare, he explains.  

The last two limitations Roland says is a "a belief that social media discussions are completely representative of real world discussions and challenges" and "an unproven relationship between the size of personas social media network and their clinical credibility and experience".  

Roland asserts that there is a dire need and reiteration for responsibility on the Internet when it comes to sharing health care information on social media platforms. Furthermore, Roland does not believe that politicians, healthcare industries and healthcare consumers are already aware of these limitations.  

"I think experienced users are very aware but novice entrants, public and professional, can be deceived or misguided quite easily about content and its potential reach," Roland explained. "I think politicians and health policy makers are increasingly realizing potentials and pitfalls. Hopefully we will see a new generation of them leading the way in producing/sharing content and/or engaging by using social media to its full potential."  

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Roland does not doubt that there are advantages to using social media in health communications, including:  

  • The speed of dissemination of information and subsequent knowledge transfer.
  • Connecting with others with similar agenda and objectives, which can lead to research or improvement collaboratives which will deliver impact in a shorter time.
  • Creative of online communities of practice (oCoPs).
  • The ability to bring professionals and patients together in a way that reduces the traditional hierarchical perspectives and allows patients to understand grey areas of medicine.

He specially noted one limitation of social media in health communications, in particular: the vulnerability and risk of having everything and anything up for debate. He believes that though there is risk presented with the unavoidable vulnerability in the openness of social media, there are pros as well as cons to that. Nevertheless, Roland believes the future of social media in health communications is mostly positive in its potential.  

"The con is when the wrong messages get out, (anti-vaccination campaigners for example promoting poorly evidenced information via Twitter or Facebook), but the good thing about social media is it allows debate to occur about both and hopefully the reach of the discussion will be much further than it will have been previously," Roland concluded.