Social Networking for Health

Social networking sites are places online where people communicate, create community and co-create content.


Image courtesy of [name of the image creator] at

This is an auspicious time to be thinking about social networking. This summer is the 10th anniversary of the birth of YouTube. Oddly enough, I found out about this by listening to “old media”, i.e. the radio. Still, I got a couple of useful pointers for anyone thinking of creating their own social networking presence, which is what this blog is all about.

  1. Have a clear brand – to distinguish your site from the maelstrom of others.


  1. Having a committed audience, who’ll follow you, is important to success of your site.
  1. Be consistent – provide something of value every time.

Tips courtesy of Aleks Krotoski, BBC Radio 4 – (at 23 mins 20s).

These tips chime well with Heather Mansfield’s advice in Getting Started with Social Media (Mansfield, 2012) about purpose and branding. Among other, more technical, advice she suggests that organisations define their objectives for social media, to keep them focused and allow them to monitor progress. I think it will also make it a lot clearer to your readers what the site is for and how they can engage with it. Mansfield also advises that you should consider what your logo or avatar looks like on social media sites, which will probably be quite different from how it looks on your static site. Beware the cropped logo!

Berkeley logo

Do people use social networking for health?

What does that even mean? It could mean a variety of things, such as using sites like LinkedIn, Facebook, YouTube or Twitter to find information about health – prevention or disease – e.g. looking up pictures or symptom lists to check your own against them. Or it could mean using such websites to ask the online community for help. I am a member of a UK doctors’ online forum, (or DNUK, for short), where I and other doctors regularly ask each other questions and seek help from the community of professionals. I may know some of them personally, but they are easier to reach on DNUK and it’s easy to ask questions, without fear or shame. (The shame of the “Surely, you should know that?” look!) This site is entirely health- (or rather medicine-) oriented, but is only available to UK doctors. So, it seems to be of no use for a mass public health campaign, even though it reaches 209,746 doctors. It could be useful, though, for passing public health messages to doctors, who can then engage with the wider community about them. LinkedIn, in a similar way, is a community largely of professionals. It has a wider, more mixed membership than DNUK. Like DNUK, you have to create a profile and have a login to see the content. I often engage with global health and health psychology forums on LinkedIn, but I never use to ask questions about my own health. Be careful what your share!

What about people outside the health professions – where do they look for health information? According to a 2012 survey by the Pew Research Center, nearly three-quarters (72%) of US internet users said they had looked online for health information in the previous 12 months. In another survey, last year, they found that 9 out of 10 (90%) US adults owns a cell phone and nearly two-thirds (58%) of those have a smart phone. This means they can access the internet on the go and engage with social media sites nearly all the time (Pew Research Center, 2015). So, using social media could be an effective way of getting health messages to a big audience. Some other research from Pew shows what social media platforms people are using, overall and by age group. This is useful for helping to direct your message to your target group, by using their most popular platform (Duggan et al., 2015).

Social media useUsing this sort of information tells you that you could potentially reach over half of US adults via Facebook, but only around a fifth on Twitter. Facebook is most likely to reach people 65 and over, with 56% using it. 18 to 29 year olds are more likely than other groups to use Instagram, where you could reach them with videos and picture messages. 53% are on Instagram and nearly half of all the site’s users do so every day.

Why use social networking for health?

People have learnt that they cab get answers to their questions very quickly – far more quickly than they can get an appointment with their doctors. The answer might already be out there on the web. If not, there are many 100s or 1000s of people who may be willing to provide the answer. As the Good Book says,

In many counsellors, there is wisdom.

Proverbs 15:22

So where do you look, or where should you post?

Where will you post your health messages and create a community around them? It makes sense to post where people are already looking for health information. To find health information 70-75% of people in the US search the internet, while in the UK, Facebook is the 4th most popular place to look. YouTube is the second most powerful search engine after Google and hosts a slew of health videos. So, these are some obvious places to start.

Wikis contribute in a slightly different way. A wiki is a special type of website, in which the content can be edited by the readers. It’s a way of crowd-sourcing information about particular topics. Probably the best known is Wikipedia – an online encyclopaedia. You may not know much about the people who have put up the page or edited it – users don’t create profiles –but the platform allows participation by readers, in the same way as other social networking sites. Wikis are generally handy for many-to-many communication, with information shared in a central location and accessible to all. They can be about any topic and, as you might expect, there is one dedicated to health: This social networking site includes articles, plus links to other health-related sites.

HLWIKI International – – is a wiki for health librarians, with a wealth of information about social media. Although it is aimed at information professionals (or librarians), it has information that is useful for anyone who’s thinking about using social media. E.g. the page on digital citizenship – m – focuses on netiquette and how to protect yourself (or your organisation) and others in your online space.

When posting on social media, consider:

  • Who is your target audience?
  • What’s the best way to deliver your message – text only, pictures, video, podcasts, mixed media?

7 thoughts on “Social Networking for Health

  1. I like your intro. I still listen to the radio too 🙂 Your list at the beginning of your post and questions at the end highlight the takeaways for easy browsing. Readers can find more information in the middle if they are interested. Thanks for sharing the HLWIKI link! It looks quite useful. A word of caution about the credibility of wikis could remind readers to not trust everything they read and to check sources. Your advice about developing and maintaining a clear brand is very useful and I like how you drove some of your points home with well placed graphics. One suggestion would be to add more images/figures to break up the text. Overall, your post was very informative. Thanks!

  2. Excellent point about the cropped logo (and well illustrated). I like the contrast you point out between open and closed internet communities (DNUK vs LinkedIn).

    It’s also great to get a non-USA-centric view of social media and health. The HLWIKI is a great resource I probably never would have found because it is Canadian, and search engines like Google usually return mostly US stuff.

  3. Hi Sandra, Thanks for sharing this valuable info. I was particularly interested in DUNK because it can really be so useful for physicians to benefit from the wisdom and experience of other physicians. Some of the best clinic experiences I had were in environments where the physicians readily called on other physicians for consult and advice in real time. Although there are some privacy issues, I always thought it was clever when a primary care doc texted a picture of (for example) an unusual rash or lesion to a dermatologist colleague for immediate feedback. It seems that the “instant” nature of social media could help this process.

    I also appreciated your top three tips for creating a social media site. I am hoping to do this for some of my outreach programs, but the task is a bit daunting. I like your old fashioned radio “brand.”

    Your information on wiki pages was also helpful. I’m always hesitant to use wiki as a “final word” on anything because I don’t know the source, but there are certainly areas in which allowing everyone to have a voice could be very helpful.

  4. Thanks for the comments. I agree that I should have sounded a word of caution about considering Wikis as authoritative sources. They can be a great source of information, but you really do need to check it out using multiple sources and, if available, a definitive one. If the information you get on the wiki page is very different from these other sources, it is probably either out of date or entirely spurious. From a PH point of view, reading it could still be useful to understand what others are thinking, especially from a popular one like Wikipedia. That could help with tailoring the messages you want to put out yourself. When I was in endocrinology, I always found it helpful to have an idea of what all the thyroid disease sites were saying, for instance.

  5. Hi Sandra. Your post is full of really useful and practical information. I really like how you have great visuals that also make a point. Setting up the audience with questions, and following up with answers based on robust resources is really helpful. Incidentally, it also makes me think that this is how physicians think. You have illustrated an effective writing style to to convey a message to health care professional. Getting to the right audience is just half the journey, having something valuable to say delivered in a way that is most appropriate for your audience completes the mission. CDC has a nice Guide to Writing for Social Media ( which also includes a checklist. Great job!

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