Social Media and Health: Leaders(hip) and Followers(hip)

Social media is finally catching on with healthcare, public health, and  health promotion. With a few recent articles published in the academic literature to rest on, academic health sciences has finally (and I might argue, begrudgingly) conceded that 900+ million users and $100B valuations (Facebook), and thousands of messages exchanged every milisecond (microblogs like Twitter and Sina Wiebo) might have some value for the public beyond entertainment.

If you note how long it took the health sector to start using the telephone as a serious means of engaging their patients or the public, this is lightning-quick adoption. Still, the barriers to adoption are high and the approach to using the technology is scattered. Indeed, just like the start of Internet-delivered telehealth (or cybermedicine (PDF), which has now evolved into eHealth), there is a mad rush to get liked, followed or some other metrics that most health professionals barely understand.

And that is part of the problem.

Meaningful Social Media Metrics

What is a meaningful metric for social media and health? A recently published article in Health Promotion Practice suggested four metrics that are taken from social marketing and applied to social media. These Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s) are:

  • Insights (consumer feedback)
  • Exposure (media impressions, visits, views, etc..)
  • Reach (# people who connect to the social media application)
  • Engagement (level of interaction with the content)

These are reasonable, but to to the uninitiated I would suggest a few words of caution and commentary to this list.

Firstly, the insights suggested by Neiger and colleagues “can be derived from practices such as sentiment analysis or data mining that uses algorithms to extract consumer attitudes and other perspectives on a particular topic” (p.162). While not incorrect, this makes the job sound relatively simple and it is not. Qualitative analysis + quantitative metrics such as those derived from data mining are key. Context counts immeasurably in social media use. It’s only in situations where social media is used as a broadcasting tool that gross measures of likes and sentiment analysis work with little qualification.

Even that is problematic. Counts of ‘likes’, ‘visits’, ‘follows’ and such are highly problematic and can be easily gamed. I am ‘followed’ on Twitter by people who have tens of thousands of followers, yet virtually no presence online. Most often they are from marketing fields where the standard practice is to always follow back those who follow you. Do this enough and pretty quickly you, too can have 23,000 followers and follow 20,000 more. This is meaningless from the perspective of developing relationships.

Engagement is the most meaningful of these metrics and the hardest to fully apply. This category gets us to consider the difference between “OMG! AWESOME!” and “That last post made me think of this situation [described here] and I suggest you read [reference] here for more” as comments. Without understanding the context in which these are made within the post, between posts (temporally and sequentially), and in relation to a larger social and informational context, simple text analysis won’t do.

Social Media Evidence: Problems and More Problems

One of the objections to the use of social media by some is that it is not evidence-based. To that extent I would largely agree that this is the case, but then we’ve been jumping out of airplanes with parachutes despite any randomized controlled trial to prove their worth.

Another article in Health Promotion Practice in 2011 highlights potential applications for social media and behaviour change without drawing on specific examples from the literature, but rather on theoretical and rhetorical arguments. An article published in the latest issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science highlights the current state of research on Facebook, which is timely given that its IPO is set for today. That review by Wilson and colleagues illustrates the largely descriptive nature of the field and offers some insight on to the motivation of Facebook users and their online activities, but rather little in what Facebook does to promote active change in individuals and communities when they leave the platform.

The answer to whether social media like platforms such as Facebook ‘work’ as methods of promoting change is simply: we don’t know.

Does social media provide support to people? Yes. Does it inform them? Yes to that too. Does that information produce something other than passive activity on the topic? We don’t know.

In order to answer these questions, health sciences professionals, evaluators, and tech developers need to consider not just followership, but leadership. In this respect, it means creating changes to the way we gather evidence, the tools and methods we use to analyse data, and the organizational structures necessary to support the kind of real-time, rapid cycle evaluation and developmental design work necessary to make programs and evidence relevant to a changing context.

As Facebook launches into its new role as a public company it is almost assured to be introducing new innovations at a rapid pace to ensure that investor expectations (which are enormous) are met. This means that today’s Facebook will not be next month’s. Having funding mechanisms, review and approval mechanisms, a staff trained and oriented to rapid response research, and an overall organizational support system for innovation is the key.

Right now, we are a long way from that. Hospitals are very large, risk averse organizations; public health units are not much different. They both operate in a command-and-control environment suited for complicated, not complex informational and social environments. Social media is largely within the latter.

Systems thinking, design thinking, developmental evaluation, creativity, networks and innovation: these are the keywords for health in the coming years. They are as author Eric Topol calls the dawning of the creative destruction of medicine.

The public is already using social media for health and now the time has come for health (care, promotion and protection) systems to get on board and make the changes necessary to join them.

2 Comments on “Social Media and Health: Leaders(hip) and Followers(hip)

  1. Pingback: Mindful Navigation of Complexity and Social Media « Censemaking

  2. Pingback: Too Much Social Media, Not Enough Social Message « Censemaking

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