Need an idea for tonight’s healthy dinner? Head to Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, and someone’s probably posted a drool-worthy photo of last night’s kale and quinoa salad. But looking for suggestions about which treatment to pursue for chronic headaches? Sorry, but your social graph’s got nothing.
At least that’s what a new study from Brigham Young University suggests. Researchers found that while most Internet users search online for health information, few of us actually post questions and comments about our health issues on social media Correlates of health-related social media use among adults. Thackeray, R., Crookston, B.T., West, J.H. Department of Health Science, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT, USA. Journal of Medical Internet Research 2013 Jan 30;15(1):e21. . The study authors say that if we actually took the time to post about our experiences, the health information available online could be much more helpful.
What’s the Deal?
The study is based partly on findings from the Pew Internet and American Life Survey conducted in September 2012 and partly on independent research conducted by the study authors Correlates of health-related social media use among adults. Thackeray, R., Crookston, B.T., West, J.H. Department of Health Science, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT, USA. Journal of Medical Internet Research 2013 Jan 30;15(1):e21. . In the Pew survey, researchers held phone interviews with more than 3,000 American adults and asked them about their Internet usage habits; the other study involved telephone interviews with about 1,700 people.
It turns out more than 60 percent of Internet users look for health information online, seeking advice, looking up other users’ experiences on social media, and reading reviews of health providers and health care facilities. Of that group, three quarters start their investigation using a search engine such as Google or Yahoo. Almost one third end up looking for information on social networking sites, and about 40 percent check out online rankings and reviews.
But once they find the information they’re looking for, Internet users don’t seem to come back and discuss their experiences on social media. The study found only 10 percent of people posted reviews and 15 percent of people posted comments or questions about health issues. The study authors go on to suggest that if more people discussed their health online, patients could take a more active role in their healthcare. Moreover, doctors could get a better idea of the questions and concerns people have about certain medical issues.
Is It Legit?
Looks like it. Both surveys involved pretty big sample sizes of people across the United States, so the findings are likely accurate. And just a quick look at anyone’s Facebook or Twitter feed will probably reveal a minimal number of Tylenol-related queries and comments.
Still, it’s worth noting that (according to the study) most of the people who look for health information online in the first place are young, female, and white. More educated people and those with higher incomes also tend to be more likely to search online for health information. And those with chronic health conditions make up a large chunk of the people looking up health information online. So the study findings probably reflect the habits of these particular populations as opposed to Americans in general. It would be worth surveying specific demographics, such as older Americans or ethnic minorities, to see how their habits of Internet use differ from the population at large.
Of course, no one’s suggesting that viewing photos of someone’s broken toe on Facebook should become a replacement for consulting a healthcare professional. In fact, becoming too reliant on the Internet to make self-diagnoses can contribute to serious anxiety about our health, also known as “cyberchondria.” But sharing health information online can give patients and doctors a quick idea of what questions to ask during individual appointments. The Internet certainly isn’t designed to replace the doctor’s office, but it’s a great place to start a conversation and possibly make people feel less alone when it comes to their health and wellness.
Do you share health information on social media? Why or why not? Let us know in the comments below or tweet the author at @ShanaDLebowitz.