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January 20, 2020 Dr. Jayne 2 Comments

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On occasion, I’ve done consulting for groups who are trying to drive clinical outcomes through better patient engagement. Both vendors and healthcare delivery organizations have an interest in this, as they try to help providers capture incentives with value-based payment models or try to prevent unnecessary care. I’ve seen some unique and compelling apps that they expect patients to use, some of which try to gamify the healthcare experience. Other organizations are betting their money on patient portal functionality, and some are leveraging text-based solutions.

There’s a fine line, though, between trying to converse (whether electronically, face-to-face, or virtually) with patients versus using social medial platforms to try to reach specific clinical goals. I was interested to see this article in the Journal of the American Medical Association that looks at the potential role of social media in preventive health care. The authors start by noting Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data that indicates that more than 100,000 lives could be saved annually if patients in the US received clinical preventive services. These include basic elements such as vaccinations, tobacco use counseling, cancer screening, and blood pressure screening. They note key barriers such as access, cost, and awareness as factors that lead to inadequate delivery of services.

The authors note that “social media and other digital platforms that enable connectivity have unprecedented influence,” which to me is an understatement. The rise of social media “influencers” in many facets of life is somewhat surreal to those of us who have dedicated our lives to being expert in a field and trying to use evidence to guide what we say and do. In the world of social media, you can know fairly little about something, but if you present yourself well and have something catchy to offer, you can get thousands of people to begin following your every word. Sometimes notoriety is more important than knowledge or experience, and often consumers fail to understand the difference. With that in mind, I was skeptical about how social media could positively impact healthcare delivery. Not to mention, there are obvious privacy concerns where social media and personal health information intersect.

The authors specifically discuss the Facebook Preventive Health tool, which is available only in the mobile app. The app consumes sex and age data and matches it with guideline-driven preventive health services, also offering locations where users might want to receive them. The app uses a variety of guidelines from the American Cancer Society, American College of Cardiology, American Heart Association, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In looking at the app myself, they seem to pick and choose some of their recommendations, particularly where there are discrepancies between bodies such as the CDC and ACS. It’s also not very clear who is behind choosing the recommendations, and how they decided which set of guidelines to follow for any given condition. It’s also not clear how they decided what conditions to include or exclude in the tool. The app isn’t totally benign, as Facebook gathers user data about how individuals interact with the tool. Although the company claims they’re not sharing it with third parties, I’m skeptical.

The authors note that the Facebook Preventive Health tool suggests that users can share it with their networks. Although this can theoretically raise awareness of screening measures, it’s not clear whether such sharing actually drives health behavior change. They do cite a study on voting that showed that among 15 million Facebook users, direct messages encouraging voting influenced the behavior of individuals and their networks. However, they note that “a better understanding is needed in regard to whether information about preventive health propagates across users and how new users and influencers affect dissemination.” They also note some previous research that shows that “fact checking declines when information is presented on social media compared within an individual setting.” They cite the number of anti-vaccine “influencers” online and how misinformation can impact vaccine delivery. They go on to note that “for any health intervention on a social media platform, it will be important to determine how to assess the success of an intervention that includes vetted health recommendations on the same platform as misinformation.”

The authors note that privacy is an issue. While patients easily offer their personal data to apps, fitness trackers, and other platforms, they may not be aware how that data is used or that it can be combined with other data sources to personal data profiles that are beyond what they might normally share. I had a “wow this is scary” moment with one of my clients recently when they did just this – combining publicly available data that used only a name and email address to bring in demographic data, address information, and more, and ultimately created psychosocial profiles with specific predictions of income, educational status, political leanings, and other potentially sensitive data.

They go on to discuss the challenge of engaging populations that struggle to access health services – uninsured patients and those without primary care providers. Just making these patients aware that they need screening isn’t going to make family physicians create more openings for Medicaid or uninsured patients. The retail clinics mentioned in the app don’t offer a wide variety of services and the federally qualified health centers that are recommended might not have capacity to care for these patients either.

In the end, the authors leave us with more questions than answers. They note that it has always been a struggle when technology crosses paths with healthcare and there is typically skepticism of things that are new. Miasmas versus germ theory, anyone? They note the need for careful evaluation of the use of social medial platforms in driving public health needs, and the opportunity for partnership among healthcare delivery organizations, researchers, and the social media industry. These groups need to work together to enable studies of the interventions and definitions of a successful result.

This leaves me wondering, though – what would happen if specific social media influencers teamed up with reputable healthcare organizations to promote healthy behaviors? What if the Kardashians were hawking the concept of “eat less, move more” rather than “waist trainers,” which are essentially corsets? What if Goop sold “wellness” products that were actually based in science? What if famous rappers talked about taking their lady friend to get her pap test versus taking their daughter to get a “virginity test?” (Google it if you missed it in real life.) It has to go beyond getting former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on Sesame Street.

What do you think about the role of social media in health promotion? Leave a message or email me.

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Currently there are "2 comments" on this Article:

  1. Thank you for this. Currently, “influencers” focus on snake oil, worse nonsense, and of course reflect the wishes of Russian trolls/Putin
    How beneficial to use the internet for good, rather than for lies, hate, bad taste, and bogus products.

  2. I just saw this post from CNN: https://edition.cnn.com/2020/01/18/us/tiktok-doctors-nurses-trnd/
    Physicians and nurses are using social media to deliver healthcare education to teenagers/younger generation, but not without criticism. Even if it’s not all positive, I think their efforts somewhat address your question of real healthcare professionals/organizations–not social media influencers–promoting healthy behavior. Looks like some are trying 🙂







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