Consumers take their own tweet time using social media for health questions

June 12, 2012 – 7:43 AM | By Jim Stommen | No comments yet

OK, social media mavens – this one’s for you.

This coming from someone who, whenever I see or hear a reference to a Tweet, automatically rack up the chorus to Bobby Day’s golden oldie “Rockin’ Robin” (yes, and the Jackson 5, but Bobby Day’s was the original, in 1958):

“Rockin’ robin (tweet tweet tweet)

Rockin’ robin (tweet tweet tweet)

Oh rockin’ robin well you really gonna rock tonight”

But I digress . . . This is about the use of social media to discuss health issues. According to a recent PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) report, more than 40% of all U.S. adults do just that, flocking to all manner of social media platforms using devices of every shape and form.

Full disclosure: I am not among them. I don’t write on anyone’s Facebook wall, except for those occasions when I piggyback on my wife’s account to make a comment (emphasizing right up front that that particular post is FROM JIM). I also don’t do Twitter, and I unlinked from LinkedIn not long after having signed up in a moment of weakness upon receipt of an invite from a former colleague (nothing personal, Marcus).

But despite these obvious signs of personal backwardness, I was not at all surprised to read the results of the PwC survey that the giant global consulting firm conducted among 1,060 U.S. consumers and 124 healthcare executives. I mean, just look around the next time you’re in a public place – a Starbucks for sure, any outdoor café, pretty much any parking lot outside a “big box” store, even a ballgame, for God’s sake – and you’ll see a disproportionate number of your fellow citizens with his or her face buried in a tiny little screen of a phone, tablet or some other device whose name I almost certainly don’t know.

And at any given time, at least some of them are doing something connected with healthcare. They’re trying to learn more about some given medical condition or treatment, checking on physician or hospital reviews, interacting with others as to the care they have received.

PwC puts the number of those who have used social media to access health-related consumer reviews — of physicians or treatments – at 42%, while “nearly 30% have supported a health cause, 25% have posted about their health experience, and 20% have joined a health forum or community.”

Not surprisingly, age clearly is the most influential factor in engaging and sharing through social media, with PwC saying that more than 80% of the survey respondents ages 18 to 24 indicating they would be likely to share health information through social media and only 45% of those ages 45 to 64 indicating the same. (Cue the smirks by those who found my aforementioned disclaimer a clear indication of backwardness.)

PwC’s report says that social media information clearly is influencing decisions to seek care, with 45% of respondents saying information found via social media would affect their decisions to seek a second opinion and 40% saying that information found that way would affect the way they coped with a chronic condition or their approach to diet and exercise.

As just one example, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that after Facebook added a link allowing users to connect to online organ donor registries, an astounding 100,000 did so within the first 24 hours. The AJC added that in the first week, 804 people signed onto the Georgia site compared to 18 in the same period of the previous year.

None of this is especially surprising, as we clearly are in an era of the informed healthcare consumer. More so than at any time in history, we can easily access information that in the pre-Internet age would either have taken hours upon hours of laborious research through paper-based materials or simply not have been available at all to ordinary citizens.

And yes, I am part of this informed society. I do regularly pursue information on illnesses, treatments and docs — just not via what we’re dubbing social media. I do it the old-fashioned way, via laptop (sarcasm very much intended).

There’s a huge element of irony to all this information-seeking, however. This revolution, if one would call it that, comes at a time when healthcare organizations of all sorts – from physician practices to hospitals to the companies bringing medical technologies to the marketplace – are pretty much laggards when it comes to the use of social media.

As PricewaterhouseCoopers noted in its report, “Social media activity by industry organizations is dwarfed by consumer activity.” Although eight in 10 companies evaluated in the study reported having some presence on various social media sites, “the volume of activity for companies is in the hundreds versus the thousands of posts, comments and overall activity observed in community sites in a week’s snapshot analysis.”

In fact, said PwC, “community sites had 24 times more social media activity on average than any of the health industry companies over that one-week timeframe.” Its conclusion: “Healthcare businesses [have] started to listen, but aren’t translating social media conversations into practice.”

The report indicates that one in every two healthcare businesses “worry about how to integrate social media data into their businesses and how to connect social media efforts to a return on investment.”

The latter seems a telling point. Without a clear ROI, use of social media may be little more than exercises in collecting “likes” and “followers.”

But organizations that figure out how to make metrics gathered through social media become part of a more active and engaged role in helping manage the health of individuals clearly will be on to something.

One telling quote in the PwC report came from Ed Bennett, who oversees social media efforts at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore: “If you want to connect with people and be part of their community, you need to go where the community is. You need to be connecting before you actually are needed.”

Makes sense, even to me.

(Jim Stommen, retired executive editor of Medical Device Daily, is a freelance writer focusing on healthcare issues.)

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