Social Media & Public Health


Are you a public health professional, interested in incorporating social media into your work? Here are some recommendations for clinicians, health educators, and health policy makers. For details on work cited, please refer to this page. For additional background information on this topic, please refer to Googling a Cure – The Impact of Seeking Medical Information Online and Through Social Media.

Healthcare professionals have a variety of social media tools to select from, including social networking platforms and microblogs, like Facebook, Twitter, Patients Like Me, and other health care specific blogs (Ventola, 2014; George et al., 2013; Von Muhlen & Ohno-Machado, 2012). These tools can be used by clinicians, health educators, and health policy makers in a variety of ways, with applications ranging from facilitating professional networking opportunities, to improving education and outreach efforts, to impacting patient care (Chauhan et al., 2012; George et al., 2013; Von Muhlen & Ohno-Machado, 2012). Public health professionals may find that social media is particularly effective at reaching young adults, who make up the majority of social media users (Greenwood et al., 2016). But in the context of health promotion, there is more to social media than just being a communication tool that targets young adults.

Social media is well positioned to target otherwise hard-to-reach populations (Martinez et al., 2014; Bhutta, 2012). While this includes young adults, as the “average” social media user continues to age and evolve, the impact of social media will continue to expand to reach other underrepresented populations. This includes individuals missed through traditional health promotion efforts (Martinez et al., 2014). By promoting the horizontal exchange of information through a social network, social media transforms users into content producers ready to engage in health care decision making (Newby et al., 2015; Korda & Itani, 2013). Clinicians, health educators, and health policy makers should tap into this social network and curate health promotion efforts that encourage users to share materials over social media.

The remainder of this discussion will focus specifically on how social media can be used by clinicians, health educators, and health policymakers to improve health promotion. While there is some overlap between provider responsibility and social media applications, I have matched the following recommendations with the health professional who best fits each item.



Clinicians should use social media to communicate directly with their patients. Social media is an effective tool for communicating health issues to the general public. But it also may be used to promote mutually beneficial interactions between physicians and their patients (Keller et al., 2014; Moorhead et al., 2013). Current evidence suggests patient outcomes may improve when they can communicate directly with their clinicians over a healthcare specific social media platform (Farnan et al., 2013; Mowafa, 2013). Physicians are increasingly interested in interacting with their patients online, with more health organizations turning to health care specific social media pages to enhance patient-physician communication and enable patients to speak directly to their physicians (Mowafa, 2013). Given concerns about the need to maintain patient-provider boundaries, however, these types of communications are reserved for healthcare specific social media platforms, rather than general social media forums like Facebook (Ventola, 2014).

Clinicians should use social media as a health management tool. Social media is a valuable tool for managing rare or chronic health conditions, assisting patients in meeting personal health goals and making behavior changes (Mowafa, 2013). This is particularly true among young adults for whom social media is second nature (Greenwood et al., 2016). One study found that 60% of clinicians favored social media for health monitoring, supporting behavior changes, and improving adherence to treatment regimens among their patients (Mowafa, 2013). Another study confirmed that the use of social networking sites improve self-management behavior among adolescents with Type 1 Diabetes (Vaala et al., 2015). By providing guidance, in addition to credible health information over social media, patients are more motivated to make behavior changes (George et al., 2013). But peer support may also play a role in transforming social media into an effective health management tool.

Clinicians should connect patients with support groups over social media. Clinicians may also opt to refer patients to support groups over social media, promoting patient health by encouraging patients to connect with others. While the efficacy of offline peer support groups is well established, in-person support groups are not universally accessible (Ussher, et al., 2008; Stephen et al., 2013; Hong et al., 2012; Tsuya et al., 2014). Social media is well equipped to overcome many of the barriers that limit access to in-person peer support groups. More importantly, online support groups appear to offer the same support, if not better, when compared to in-person support groups (Cole et al., 2016).


Health Educators

Health educators should distribute evidence-based information over social media. Social media is an effective tool for promoting patient healthcare education. Through social media, health educators can reach otherwise underserved populations, distributing evidence-based information over popular social networking platforms (Ventola, 2014). By sharing information through these platforms, health educators tap into an established global network where information travels quickly, unconstrained by certain geographical or socio-economic barriers that may otherwise stifle the movement of health information (Keller et al., 2014; Ventola, 2014). It is this quality that makes social media an important tool for emergency communication (George et al., 2013).

Health educators should piggyback education efforts on trending stories. It’s one thing to send out information via social media. It’s another thing to take advantage of a trending topic and build on it. This is particularly important as organic reach declines across social media platforms (Boland, 2014). Organic reach refers to how many people you can reach for free over a social media platform by posting to your social media account. As social media content increases, it becomes less likely that an individual’s immediate online network will see the content they post (Boland, 2014). Health educators can address this issue by participating in ongoing relevant conversations, sharing trending articles, or integrating trending hashtags into their message. Doing so improves the reach of an individual message, but it also encourages health educators to interact with existing materials and users, nurturing the interactive and collaborative nature of social media communication. By building on trending material and collaborating with other users to curate a body of information about a trending topic, health educators effectively empower their fellow social media users, and ensure their message will reach more social media users.

Health educators should personalize education efforts: Social media enables health educators to tailor their efforts with a specific population in mind. Dissemination efforts benefit from personalizing imagery and content, ensuring the message resonates with the intended audience (Chiang et al., 2016). By tailoring education efforts and using online behavioral advertising to target specific populations, health educators improve the likelihood that their intended recipients will see, retain, and act on the information shared (Ventola et al., 2014; George et al., 2013). Personalization may require insight from relevant stakeholders to help fine tune content and ensure that the message is accessible (Martinez et al., 2014).


Health policy makers

Health policy makers should participate in research dissemination over social media. Historically, communication between researchers and policy makers has left room for improvement (Gnadinger, 2014). Social media may address this breakdown between research and policy, creating new communication channels between researchers and policymakers (Kapp et al., 2015). But this requires the participation of both parties. While Twitter has been shown to be a highly effective tool for research dissemination, the onus of kicking that research into the ethernet falls on the shoulders of health policy researchers (Kapp et al., 2015). From there, it’s up to the health policy makers to pay attention to research shared over social media, interact with it, and use their positionality to contribute to the conversation.

Health policy makers should listen to social media users. Social media users are anxious to voice their opinions and perspectives online. If you ever need a public vote for something, you’ll likely have far more responses if you ask a group of people to write in from the comfort of their own home over social media, than you would if you required people to drive down to a town hall and speak. While some research has investigated social media as a tool to gauge public opinion, this application is largely unexplored (Keller et al., 2014). Toscano (2016) argues that it’s time for our public participation policies and practices to catch up with contemporary communication. This includes social media. Toscano points out that failing to “give legitimacy to social media despite the fact these platforms have ushered in vast opportunities for citizens to engage,” implies that mode of delivery is more important than content (Toscano, 2016, p. 1). When social media content is ignored, health policy makers miss a valuable opportunity to gain insight from the very populations impacted by their policies (Toscano, 2016).

Health policy makers should disseminate policy through trusted brands over social media. Trusted brands play a critical role in health information seeking behavior (Kim, 2016; Ye, 2011). For example, during the 2014 Ebola outbreak, health-information seekers referred to trusted brands, such as the BBC and the WHO for information, over new health information sources (Luckerson, 2014). With this observation in mind, health policy makers can leverage trusted social media sources and pages to translate health policy into public practice (Naseri Boori Abadi & Sheikhtaheri, 2015). This might involve targeting familiar social media pages with health policy information or piggybacking on trending topics. By doing so, health policy makers ensure that the public is able to review the information in a comfortable and familiar venue (Cole et al., 2016).

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