Whether we like it or not, social media has revolutionized the way we navigate the world of public health. Individuals educate themselves and monitor their own health in new ways, the public navigates the world of health care using new tools, and health care professionals have new resources for communicating and rethinking their practices.
These new ways of thinking and interacting with public health have been the cause of some legitimate concern. Let’s examine the effects social media has had on journalism. The field of journalism has undergone a radical sea change due to the fact that anyone with internet access can now be both a “journalist” and a publisher. This has led to the mass amateurization of the field, rendering professional journalists more and more obsolete. This is due to the fact that their previous role as gatekeepers of information has been ripped asunder as a result of the near infinite availability of the previously scarce resource of publishing platforms (Shirky, C. Here Comes Everybody). The potential parallels in the field of public health may be cause for alarm. After all, the stakes may be much higher when a non-professional seeks and acts upon information about critical health issues written and published by other non-professionals. This is clearly seen in the anti-vaccination movement. The role of the gatekeeper in the field of health does have a clear benefit.
On the other hand, the ease with which people can now access valuable information and resources about health and health care has led to radical breakthroughs in the field of public health. Access to health information is no longer a scarce resource, and when that information comes from reliable sources, the results can be lifesaving.
Below are 4 ways in which social media has enhanced the field of public health:
1. The proliferation of health apps
Apps related to exercise, diet, sleep quality, and vital signs are very popular and an excellent way for individuals to monitor and take responsibility for their own health. From apps such as FitBit, in which you can track your daily activity and compete with friends and coworkers for most number of steps taken in a day, to MyFitnessPal, which helps you keep track of your daily calorie intake and expenditure, health apps are a fantastic example of the ability for social media to empower people take control of their own health.
2. Health professionals can collaborate more easily to better serve patients
Health care professionals frequently use social media for both professional networking (think LinkedIn) as well as to enhance their professional practices. A new app called Figure 1 allows doctors to upload pictures of rare and puzzling phenomena they experience in their practice and to receive feedback from others in their field. By posting pictures in which their patients’ identities are protected, doctors are able to discuss cases freely and draw on the benefits of group thinking: professional opinions and insights that they would otherwise not be able to gather without the ease of this social media tool.
3. Increased access to resources for health information
Sites such as WebMD, health blogs and online journals, when used appropriately, are a great tool for the public to learn basic and introductory information about their own health, and to provide them with tools and vocabulary for discussing their health concerns with professionals.
4. The use of social media to shape health care reform
In “Here Comes Everybody” author Clay Shirky refers to “the former audience” as the “people who react to, participate in, and alter a story as it is unfolding.” The most recent healthcare legislation passed in the US depended heavily on social media to spread awareness and mobilize the public to promote reform. For example, in 2013, President Obama encouraged celebrities to use Twitter to promote Obamacare.These kinds of social media campaigns were greatly responsible for the passing of the new legislation, and will certainly continue to play an important role in health care reform.
Are you aware of any other uses of social media to promote public health? Let us know in the comments!