Social Life of Health Information

When it comes to health, people have always consulted with others in their social and professional circles. So, whether looking for more info or for data to confirm decisions made, plenty of conversations about health happen outside the examination room.

As with so many things, the internet and social networks now make it possible for people to reach out beyond their traditional social circles and geographic constraints for health information. Today, we can (potentially) reach out to anyone, anywhere to access their specialized knowledge and insights.

How are patients tapping into the social life of health information? What impact is this now widely-available health information having on healthcare providers? What opportunities does the current state of the social life of health information present to industry and pharma? Let’s take a look.




The Social Life of Health Information Measured

Accessing health information online has eclipsed talking with your doctor. – Source


Pew Research published its first report on how American adults seek health information, The Online Health Care Revolution, in 2000. They then followed up with a series of semi-annual reports called The Social Life of Health Information.Together these reports have chronicled the evolution of how and where people have looked for and shared health information over the past decade.

Other organizations have studied the social life of health information, especially as it relates to the rise of the internet and social networks. Among these other organizations are PwC and Health Union.  And, Pew Research’s ongoing examination of the social life of health information remains backbone research on this topic.




Online Access Provides a Ubiquitous Resource for Health Information


The number and types of online resources consulted for health information have grown more complex over the past decade. – Source


With the advent of the internet, social media platforms, and social networks, the social life of health information has grown beyond the traditional restrictions of social reach and geography.


More people than ever are searching online for health information.

In 2009, Pew Research reported that 61% of adult internet users had looked online for health information. By 2014, that number had grown to 72%.

The role of social media sites has increased dramatically. Pew reported in 2009 that social networking sites were used sparingly, with only 39% of e-patients using Facebook or MySpace. By 2016, Health Union identified Facebook as the second most commonly used online resource for health information, with 65% of respondents saying they had looked to Facebook for health information.

In the “Role of Patient Influencers: How do patients truly share information? study, WEGO Health also confirmed that Facebook is the top platform for the sharing of health information. The study revealed:

  • 87% of study participants say they share health information via Facebook posts
  • 81% of study participants say they share health information via Facebook messages


People Look Online for Information Relevant to Their Own Health

Specific health-related events trigger online searches for health information – Source


Patients most often look online for resources and health information when they experience a serious health condition or illness.

In fact, an astounding 98% of patients surveyed told Health Union that they used an online or social media resource when they personally experienced a serious health condition.

The fact that the most commonly used online resources are websites about specific health conditions (used by 71% of survey respondents) points out that people search online for specific, personally-relevant health information.



The social life of health information points to distinct audiences and demographics.

In analyzing posts on Twitter, Google+, selected drug review websites, and selected health-focused forums, a research group from the University of California at Riverside identified distinct health topics of interest by gender, age, ethnicity, and geographic region on various social platforms.

Some of their findings were as expected. Pregnancy was the dominant topic for women on drug review sites and health forums. Men on those sites focused primarily on cardiac problems, HIV, and back pain.

Other findings, however, point out where patients form distinct groups online when looking for health information about specific ailments. For example, when sorted by age, younger people (aged 0-17) focused on drugs related to ADHD while older people (aged 65+) discussed drugs related to heart problems, blood pressure, diabetes, and cholesterol.

The drugs discussed online vary by the age group of the participants. – Source



People Seek Out Patients to Answer Their Questions

People most often seek health information online about treatments, drugs, and coping with their health condition. – Source



People value the real-life experience available online from patients.

Of those asking a health-related question online, 87% sought responses from patients who have experienced a specific health condition. Only 46% said they were looking online for an answer from a doctor or other health care professional.

Having direct access to a patient peer can also provide emotional and social support to the patient and caregiver. A wide-reaching list of benefits of online health communities for patients and caregivers include providing:

  • Encouragement and motivation
  • Advice and information
  • Recognition for successes or positive events
  • Accountability
  • Camaraderie
  • Tangible support in the form of information about health services and where to find them


Health Information Found Online Influences Decision-Making

Patients report the measurable impact health information found online has on their health-related decisions. – Source



People use the health information they find online to make decisions.

The vast majority, (97%) of patients say they use the health information they find online when meeting their healthcare professionals. Of those, 73% say online health information had at least some impact on their health-related decisions.

The health information that is gathered has specific impacts on the health decisions and actions patients take, including influencing:

  • Decisions about how to treat an illness or condition
  • Changes to their overall approach to maintaining their health
  • Questions raised with their healthcare providers
  • Whether to seek a second opinion
  • The way the person copes with a chronic condition or manages pain
  • Whether to go see a doctor at all

WEGO Health’s own Behavioral Intent Study found that when health information is presented online by someone influential:

  • 93% will ask their physician about the information
  • 94% will share the information with people they believe would be interested in it

People still rely on their healthcare professionals to be their primary source of health information, even with the growing access to health information online. Pew documented the continued reliance on healthcare professionals in 2009, 2011, and 2014.


Healthcare Professionals Find Their Own Value in Online Health Information

Physicians also turn to online sources of health information – Source



Ninety-one percent of physicians consider the internet to be an indispensable professional resource, relying heavily on it for immediately accessible guidance.

Additionally, healthcare professionals have found their own reasons for seeking out health-related information online and via social media.

Following what their colleagues are discussing and sharing is the most popular social media activity for 60% of physicians. Social media sites specifically for healthcare professionals, like Doximity, are cropping up. For these physicians, a significant part of their professional life and networking has moved online.

More and more healthcare professionals are using social media in their job searches. This percentage doubled (from 21% to 42%) in three years.

Healthcare professionals have found their own uses for social media – Source


The Social Life of Health Information Enables Access to Targeted Audiences


By examining the social life of health information, both industry and pharma will discover where and how they can reach their target audiences online.

Whether reaching out to patients, or caregivers, or healthcare professionals there are online communities and conversations focused on any given health condition and its treatment. These communities and conversations provide the opportunity to reach out to groups of people affected by specific illnesses and health conditions.

The UC Riverside researchers noted that the “results [of their demographic study] provide valuable information that can help reach the right demographic group for each health concern.” They go on to say that their findings “can help healthcare providers and public health officials create targeted and effective educational campaigns, guide advertisers for different topics discussed by different demographic groups, help funding agencies allocate their research funds to have a larger impact on the society’s top health issues, and help understand health disparities in Web-based health social media.”

Businesses wanting to participate in the social life of health information should be mindful of all phases of the participation model. – Source


How can industry and pharma contribute effectively to the social life of health information?

The participation model presented by PwC identifies three distinct phases of effective social media participation: Listening; Participating; and Engaging.

Listening is not yet a standard practice found in industry and pharma. However, by listening to health communities and conversations, industry and pharma can gain valuable insights about the patient and caregiver’s experience, understanding, and opinions. Listening is a logical starting place for industry and pharma representatives.

Participation through contributing to the health information online presents a largely untapped opportunity to connect with target audiences. Very few healthcare professionals (approximately 1%) actually produce content, while 72% of adult internet users have searched for health information online. The resulting gap presents industry and pharma with the opportunity to join the conversation and reach their audiences in a highly-focused and personal manner.

Engagement requires forging a high level of connectivity between industry, pharma, healthcare professionals, patients, and caregivers. By actively interacting one-on-one, or many-to-many, new insights that can improve patient care and outcomes can be uncovered. These are the type of insights that germinate into new and improved treatments and products.


The Future of the Social Life of Health Information

Health information has a robust social life that is growing stronger online every day.

For patients and caregivers, online health information gives them easy access to information they might not have otherwise. Engaged patients and caregivers are considering what they learn to then make better-informed decisions about their care.

But the future of the social life of health information doesn’t stop there.

Healthcare professionals value the social life of health information as an indispensable professional resource—not just to further their careers, but also to provide better care. If they decide to become contributors, along with being consumers of health information, healthcare professionals have the opportunity to deliver better care to more people and to influence industry and pharma with their perspective and expertise.

For industry and pharma, actively and thoughtfully engaging in the social life of health information offers the potential for direct, two-way communication and collaboration with patients, caregivers, and healthcare professionals.

The most promising result of all healthcare players engaging in the social life of health information is the real possibility for improved patient care.

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