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How Can Social Networking Best Improve Health?


Campaigns should not rely solely on social media: traditional offline social networks and ‘hidden’ digital networking by email and direct messaging play a crucial role.

The rise of social media as a form of communication and interaction with large potential for consumer reach has brought businesses, governments, health campaigners and NGOs to launch social media campaigns aimed at changing a target group’s outlook or behaviour. The question remains, however: just how powerful can social media be?
GE Healthcare gathered a group of academic, physician and communications experts in a virtual roundtable to explore whether online social networks can encourage improved health behaviour and what factors public health campaigns ought to consider when including an online social networking element.

Part of the solution
According to Dr Tom Valente at the Department of Preventive Medicine at the University of Southern California, campaigns should not rely solely on social media: traditional offline social networks and ‘hidden’ digital networking by email and direct messaging play a crucial role. “To be most effective, the online component of any strategy needs to be organized and coordinated with other behavioral promotion, services and follow up,” he said.
This is supported by the report that Chartbeat’s recently found that 69% of referrals across its media sites came from direct messaging (email or instant messaging), with only 20% coming from Facebook and just 6% from Twitter*, making the bulk of referrals more like sharing in offline social networks among friends and family.

Noise and clutter in the online world also present a challenge, Valente said. “The immediacy of online information, resources, tools and communication makes online campaigns potentially much more successful than traditional ones. Conversely, because there is so much technology available to us now, any specific message launched online is competing with a lot of other communication.”

Choose the right issue & target group
According to panelist Dr Bernie Hogan of the Oxford Internet Institute, the online world helps solve problems of coordination. It is a place where we can coordinate with people we already know, and also find other people who we would not necessarily have known otherwise, he said. “The real challenge for changing health behaviors is determining what kind of issue is an individual facing that can be solved online, not ‘can it be solved online?’”.
According to Dr. Nate Cobb of the Georgetown University School of Medicine and Science Advisor to social health site MeYou Health, the more social you are, the more likely you are to achieve your health goals using social networking sites to support you. He described how the number of connections a MeYou Health member makes is directly proportional to their willingness to return to the site and complete their ‘daily challenge’. “Most of our data suggest that there is a relationship between how many connections you have within the site, and your ultimate outcomes, which is: the more social you are, essentially the more likely you are to stick with the product on a day-to-day basis and the more likely you are to report having completed a challenge,” he said.

Celebrity & grassroots approach is stronger
Behavior promotion campaigns often come with endorsement by a celebrity. While this may help short-term awareness, a celebrity profile rarely succeeds in influencing tangible changes in behavior, Valente said. There are all kinds of opinion leaders, from national, to regional and local, and understanding how to use each level of granularity to drive behavior change is important.
Bloomberg Health Editor Kristen Hallam referred to the leveling nature of online social networking, saying that any individual can prove influential if they share with their audience a common experience, problem, or goal. Online, like-minded people tend to congregate, she said, and it’s this association that begins to develop trust. If a social network feels like a community, they are more likely to adopt a new behavior or opinion.
Overall, the panel largely agreed that the most effective campaigns are those supported by grassroots movements and aimed at a specific demographic, as opposed to instead of merely diffusing information.

Trust is key
The influential nature of online social networks is not without risk, especially in health. Hogan noted how all too often ‘social media allow rumor mills to be exaggerated’, and misinformation or ‘scare’ campaigns easily circulate and become resilient. “Perhaps most worrying is the fact that the validity of the information is not a prerequisite for promoting the information.” That is, it is just as easy for misinformation to spread online as it is for accurate information to do so.
Tackling this, according to Hogan, means creating quality content and an appealing aesthetic to ensure a campaign is credible. This builds trust amongst consumers, and the panel advised sourcing information from industry experts and keeping the look of a campaign clear and structured.
This roundtable was the first in a series of GE Healthcare discussions that aim to dig in to some of the difficult questions in health and healthcare.



Any individual can prove influential if they share with their audience a common experience, problem, or goal. Sean Swarner, first cancer survivor to climb Mount Everest, recently acted as ambassador for the cancer prevention online game, #GetFit.