Benefits To Sharing Personal Health Info Via Social Media

Alan McStravick for — Your Universe Online
Though common and almost daily use of social media has been prevalent for over a decade, it is important to recognize that we, as a society, are still experiencing the advent of this technology and its exploration of the full potentiality it might achieve in our daily lives.
Like with many previous technologies, we have adopted and adapted it for the seemingly most primitive of uses: entertainment. However, computer scientists are exploring how to broaden our use of social media to be more beneficial, not only to the individual user, but also to society at large.
Currently, according to a Brigham Young University (BYU) study, social media use is typified by individuals posting information related to the most mundane activities. We post information and pictures about meals we´ve eaten, activities we´ve attended and funny things we´ve seen.
However, according to the BYU researchers, one area we present some hesitance in sharing with the entire World Wide Web is our health. Individuals may post a status about an upset stomach, a lingering flu or sniffles brought on by allergies, but when it comes to our experiences with over-the-counter and prescription medications or physicians or clinics we have researched, our social media presence is practically mute.
“Less than 15 percent of us are posting the health information that most of us are consuming,” said Rosemary Thackeray, BYU professor of health science and lead author of the study appearing online in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.
In the study, the team determined while more than 60 percent of Internet users will go online to seek out a self-diagnosis for our ills, very few of us will broadcast, via social media, the information we learn.
According to Thackeray, if Internet users were able to take advantage of the “social” in social media, we would see a marked improvement in the available online health information.
“If you only have a few people sharing their experience with using a painkiller, that´s different than 10,000 people doing that,” Thackeray said. “If we´re really going to use this social media aspect, there needs to be a true collective wisdom of the crowds.”
Thackeray and her BYU colleagues, Ben Crookston and Josh West, derived their study data from the Pew Internet and American Life Project. From the Pew project, they determined a full three-fourths of people actually turn to basic search engines like Google and Yahoo when beginning their search for medical or health information.
The original 75 percent is whittled down to just under a third of individuals who then transition to more traditional social networking sites, like Facebook and Twitter, for their health-related activities. Additionally, 41 percent of individuals will seek out online rankings or reviews of individual doctors and health care facilities.
Though the above data shows a great majority of us consult our computers in trying to determine our afflictions, the team reports only 10 percent of those surveyed went on to post reviews of their experiences with a physician or clinic. They also claim only 15 percent of respondents to the Pew study went on to post comments, questions or information when it came to health-related info.
“The inherent value of ℠social´ in social media is not being captured with online health information seeking,” Thackeray said. “Social media is still a good source of health information, but I don´t think it´s ever going to replace providers or traditional health care sources.”
Where individual contributions are lacking, computer scientists have been developing algorithms meant to take advantage of the limited information presented via social networking sites with regard to public health. In fact, redOrbit´s own Enid Burns wrote previously about research conducted at the University of Rochester regarding the use of the social networking platform Twitter and how it could help to pinpoint targeted flu outbreaks.
In that research, the team used GPS tagging on the social network to help map out specific areas and neighborhoods in cities where the prevalence of flu symptoms were elevated.
“If you want to know, down to the individual level, how many people are sick in a population, you would have to survey the population, which is costly and time-consuming,” said Adam Sadilek, postdoctoral researcher at Rochester. “Twitter and the technology we have developed allow us to do this passively, quickly and inexpensively; we can listen to what people are saying and mine this data to make predictions.”
The team at Rochester sees wide-ranging future application of this targeted tracking of unhealthy regions assisting individuals with planning travel routes within a sickened city. Sadilek contends the MIT-developed algorithm they utilized for their study could, as an example, aid someone in deciding to avoid a subway station if it had been determined to be populated with potentially sick individuals.
Of course, the collection of both passive and specific online habits poses ethical questions that are still in the process of being addressed and answered by experts in the field. As initially noted above, despite the seeming ubiquity of the Internet in our day-to-day lives, it is important to bear in mind that this medium is still in its infancy. Rules and guidelines, and the ethics involved with each, are still being determined.
The BYU researchers believe social media will transition from basic use, such as entertainment and general information, to a more valuable presence once there is an increase in individual self-reporting in health discussions. They claim patients, themselves, will achieve a sense of empowerment, with regard to their health decision-making, as a result. Additionally, physicians would achieve a greater awareness of the public discourse around certain medical issues.
One aspect the BYU study did not delve into was just why it is we tend to avoid specifics with regard to our health. The idea that we will share the most intimate (and inane) moments of our life, but stop short when the topic turns to our health, may be a result of the prevailing cultural mores of our society.
While this study maintained a US-centric view, the idea of social media usage and its being affected by the general culture in which it exists has been explored previously, focusing on the country of Japan.
Noted in a 2008 article, Japanese citizens who engaged in social media activity very rarely associated with persons whom they hadn´t actually met in a public setting. Additionally, one would be hard pressed to find any information on an individual´s profile page that would identify the user.
The culture of the Japanese may just be a far more exaggerated example of the US culture, as it pertains to our discussion of health information. The BYU team claims the challenge now, as they see it, is achieving success in getting individuals to contribute health information on the varied social media platforms.
“We´re just not there yet, but we´ll probably get there in the future,” Thackeray said.