I didn't eat romaine lettuce for a month. It started on Facebook when I saw a warning from an old friend. There was an E. coli outbreak from lettuce growing in Arizona’s Yuma region. Multiple people were sick, and a few had even died. Throughout the day, I saw more and more posts until I finally visited the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC’s) website — a website I only think about when I'm playing a riveting game of Pandemic — to learn more.
In the days following, the local grocery stores began pulling any salads made with this particular lettuce, and they posted signs warning of the outbreak. I couldn’t help but think about what people did before social media, when they had to rely on television, radio, newspapers, and word-of-mouth methods to get relevant health information to the masses.
It’s no surprise that social media has taken over the internet, and many companies have jumped on the chance to promote their industries, products, and services. After all, it's part of our daily routine with seven out of ten Americans using a social media platform.
The health industry has turned to social media for support, and to encourage and increase the spread of valuable information. It’s a space to share preventative information and build patient-to-patient networks post-diagnosis. Patients use social media to select doctors, hospitals, and make informed decisions for best practices to seek care. Patients can posts reviews, share things that worked for them, and know they aren't alone in whatever battles they are facing
So what are the ways that social media can achieve these public health initiatives? How do you start?
Sharing information is a big and obvious way social media contributes to public health initiatives. Healthcare industries can share news regarding outbreaks or public hazards just like the E. coli romaine lettuce outbreak. Other examples include the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak and the recent notorious Tide Pod challenge.
One way the team at Blue Star Design is helping others is through the Metro Health System’s Compass Service Positive Peers application. The private social media app is for young adults aged 13-34 who are living with HIV. The app offers valuable medical and health information, social networking, and self-management tools to support HIV-related, holistic care and encourage people to stay on their medications.
We're proud to help develop blogs, social media, and design for Positive Peers. Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook provide relatable content for patients that focus on those living with HIV/AIDs, but also information for friends, partners, and family members.
At the same time, health agencies need to have plans in place to counter misreports shared on social media. As most of us know, posts can quickly become viral, and experts in the public health sector need to stay on top of their accounts to monitor misinformation and dispel myths. Not only that, but it's also easy for the people to attempt to self-diagnose and create more panic than necessary.
You won't always receive positive responses online when you speak the truth, so it's imperative to have workers reach out to people in other ways, and not rely on social media alone to change people's perceptions.
Videos and Podcasts
Videos and podcasts can provide educational information (see, we told you sharing information is a big one) on general topics and can address particular patient questions. Videos can show how to avoid colds, apply sunscreen or bug spray correctly, and explain best practices to handle meat so someone doesn’t get sick. Podcasts can dive deeper into mental health discussions, obesity, and the opioid epidemic.
The Cleveland Clinic uses Facebook to host live Q&A's with medical professionals and to share healthy homemade recipes. They even have a podcast on their website that discusses brain health and treatment options for arthritis.
These tools not only help the public, but they can also help medical professionals learn from each other and stay updated on their specialties to provide the best, innovative care for their patients.
By now we've made the case that digital media has revolutionized healthcare in ways we didn't expect, but even research has reaped the benefits.
Social media platforms have emerged as powerful clinical recruitment engines. The National Institutes for Health suggest 85% of cancer patients remain unaware of active clinical research opportunities with 75% saying they would participate if they knew about them. Medical professionals can use platforms to cast a wider net to recruit patients of different demographics and raise awareness about potential treatment plans.
Awareness has increased for little-understood diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) via the famous 2014 ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. More than 17 million people participated on Facebook and the campaign brought in over $115 million in donations. More importantly, all of this helped scientists discover new genes tied to the disease.
Social media content can track flu epidemics and highlight misconceptions about medicine. It can monitor public perception of programs, epidemics, and respond to the public’s fears.
Storytelling is a powerful tool for reflection and healing. Whether it be through visual, oral, or written communication, it binds us more than we realize. Patients are turning to social media to document their stories in attempt to connect and heal with others.
There are countless YouTube channels showing the patient experience with chronic diseases, and there are Facebook groups to help grieving widows, parents, and other family members grapple with specific tragedies. Many patients are looking to condition-specific Facebook pages for guidance and help with coping strategies.
Without a doubt, these stories are creating a virtual community for patients to connect around the world and form a vast support network.
Face Your Fears
Social media can be an excellent tool for public health initiatives, but it requires a plan and time to promote effectively.
It’s understandable why many medical practitioners are reluctant to join in on the social world. There are blurred lines between what is appropriate to share and what is not with patient privacy protection and standards of online journalism, and it can get misunderstood as giving specific patient medical advice. However, if healthcare professionals are serious about reaching more audiences, it's time to address those fears and get on board.
Social media is a full-time job, and sometimes several full-time jobs. Healthcare professionals need to respond in a timely manner and have plans in place for major health events. Blue Star can help you develop a solid strategy, stay on budget, and most importantly, assist in amplifying awareness about public health initiatives.
We understand you’re the healthcare expert, so we take time to learn your perspective and background on the cause. We firmly believe the work you do is vital to preserving our world and keeping people safe. We’re ready to help with that cause.