health social mediaSocial media has taken the world by storm. Facebook, one of the most widely known social networking sites, was launched back in 2004 from a dorm at Harvard University and currently boasts over one billion active users. Since using social media is free, many organisations have used these sites to engage with a wider audience and to promote services as well as receive feedback, carry out surveys and gather information to improve satisfaction.

Some of the most popular social media sites are Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and relative newcomer Google+. Many social media strategies also embrace blogs and sites such as Tumblr (used for sharing photographs) and Pinterest (where users can ‘Pin’ things that ‘Interest’ them). See examples of experiments here and here. Specialist consultancies have emerged to help monitor with tools such as the Hashtag Project.

An estimated 190 million people in Europe turned to the internet for health information in 2012. While only 27% of adult consumers are thought to consult social media for this information, it has been very popular among teens and young adults and the trend is believed to be spreading among the adult population. Physicians often use social media, although more often it is personal use rather than in a professional capacity. This may be for them to locate information, around half of this reported to be in video format, while others communicate with peers. Although it is rare for patients and doctors to contact each other in this way, there has been an increase in the number of patients initiating contact with their physician through social media. So what are some examples of practical use?

  • Brand awareness and marketing is one of the biggest ways in which social media is used. An example of this is German medicines manufacturer Boehringer-Ingelheim, who use their Facebook presence to support national health campaigns, share news and provide information, without using the page as a forum to discuss individual products or patient issues.
  • When vacancies arise within a company, social media can be used to promote the vacancy, or to link potential candidates up to the online application form. It also means a wider variety of people can see it, even across the world, so that there is a higher chance of the perfect candidate seeing the position and applying.
  • Social media can create online communities. Some examples of these are for doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals to chat and meet others from around the world for social purposes, where others are perhaps for patients with certain conditions so they can support each other.
  • Through online social platforms, an array of diverse personalities come together which can assist with research and even accelerate breakthroughs. One such example is that of a group of gamers playing ‘Foldit’, who mapped out the structure of enzyme M-PMV successfully. This enzyme is the one believes to be responsible for HIV replication.
  • There also benefits in other areas, including recruiting for clinical trials, for data collection purposes, and even surveys for gathering feedback. Social communities and Facebook are excellent platforms for this, and many forums are now collecting ‘anonymised’ data to help with studies and how people use products or services.

Need for governance, policies and staff education
Unfortunately, sites open to public contribution can often attract negative comments if someone has not had a good experience and if these are not managed correctly, this can be very damaging to the company and their reputation. Sometimes, posts can open a company up to privacy, security, ethics or confidentiality breaches, even if the organisation does not have an active social media presence. When platforms are used, each post should be vetted to make sure it cannot in any way be damaging by breaching company policies in any way.

It is important that all social media strategies have a firm policy in place within an organisation to prevent breach of ethics, confidentiality and damage to the company reputation coming from the inside. UK Health and Beauty retailer Boots UK found themselves confronted with issues a few years ago after staff had been posting to public group ‘Boots the Chemist employees’ with anecdotes from their work in store. Some stories stood out more than others and massively breached confidentiality, forcing the company to dismiss some members from their staff and to employ a strict policy to prevent future incidents.

By having correct policies in place and keen staff with the right training, starting out now with a small social media presence could be the way forward for any organisation that has yet to embrace the phenomenon and power of such platforms. There is a lot to be learned from the public and social media could break down the invisible barrier and help us to access information and communicate like never before. Social media will become an integral part of health communications, providing a highly effective way of interacting, engaging and communicating with the public.

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