Socializing health: stuck between a rock and a hard place

Consumer brands, politicians, and even b-to-b enterprises are mastering social media.

Consumer brands, politicians, and even b-to-b enterprises are mastering social media. Granted, they are doing it with various degrees of gusto and for various reasons, but they are moving forward.

However, healthcare brands and services remain somewhat stuck. Some would say healthcare communicators are hampered by the lack of definitive guidance from regulators. Others would say that it's the conservative nature of healthcare companies that limit the rapid engagement of healthcare stakeholders via social media. I think it's far more basic than either. We're stuck between the rock and the hard place of wanting health businesses and services to be like musicians and soft drinks - and they're not.

So, here's a master of the obvious statement – the internet has made health information far more accessible to health consumers. Yep, that's right. People search the internet for information about health. In fact, dependent on the source, health is either the No. 1 or No. 3 topic searched for several years in a row. According to the Pew Internet Project, eight in 10 internet users look online for health information. That's 50% of the US adult population since a quarter of adults never go online.

With so many people searching for health information, it's critical that healthcare businesses engage in social media, right? Well, maybe, because here's the reality: while the internet gives us information, social media has not made people engage with health services differently.

Just because people are searching the internet for health information doesn't mean that they are using social media to get health information. In fact, social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter are rarely used for sharing health information. According to Pew, only 12% of individuals use online social communities to share updates about their own health or to learn about their friends and family's health updates.

Engagement with health takes place in an ever-expanding sphere of both online and offline communities, and more offline than online. For many people, finding health information online is the trigger and confidence-boost required for them to raise the conversation with experts or peers offline. It appears that information seeking is public as it pertains to health but health management is private and only shared with your doctor and those with whom you have face-to-face relationships from your yoga instructor to your neighbor.

Okay, so then healthcare businesses can cross social media off their list of priorities, right? Well, not really.

Who are we engaging?
Much has been made of the statistic that women over the age of 45 are the fastest-growing users of Facebook. From a healthcare business perspective, that should be encouraging as this same group is, for some, the largest consumer base for health services. However, while these women may be rapidly adopting social media, adults between the ages of 18 to 49 are the real users of social technologies related to health.

Consider this: Younger people will be older people. All those younger people who rely on social media will – before they know it and whether they like it or not – be older people who consume lots of health services. They will have health issues. So now is the time. We need to figure out how to reach those young people today so that they are already part of a health businesses community – before they need those services. Health businesses can mature with their audiences in terms of social engagement. This group is the population that can tell health businesses what they will need in the future to adopt healthier behaviors as they age.

But social for social's sake is a waste. We really need to know what we are trying to accomplish via social technologies.

Another master of the obvious statement: social media can't be an end unto itself. It must be a means of driving community – offline community. What if social media became a bit of the town crier to alert people to where they can have a more personal, private engagement relative to their own health? What if social media became a partner with the community pharmacist – the trusted referral to the health tools and experts we need? If we start from the premise that in any category, social media is about sparking community, then we begin to see not only real value for social media in health but a path for leveraging its power. If social media is about tapping into community word-of-mouth, then we have a starting point to understand where health businesses can be relevant.

The offline community – the places we live, work, and play – are powerful in health engagement. From the owner of the organic grocery in town to our fitness instructor at the YMCA to the pharmacist, the people we bump into every day are trusted health influencers. Consider that your hair stylist may know more about your health issues than your primary care physician -- after all, she sees you more frequently -- and we have real insight into how people share health issues.

Social media can be the conversation trigger to tie a health consumer closer to their actual communities.

It can be the health facilitator to help members of an online community find the best ways and places to engage offline. Social media can empower a conversation with a healthcare provider and encourage community members to find each other in less public venues to share experiences.

Imagine if a pharmaceutical company-sponsored Facebook page aggregated all the places in which people could partake of support activities for a specific condition and without promoting one over another, helped connect patients to those community-based resources. Patients receive the information and, importantly, the company begins to earn traction as a valuable partner in helping someone to address health issues.

Or what if that same company hosted a YouTube channel to showcase preventive health management tips to better connect the consumer with their primary care health provider? Again, the company isn't promoting product but rather, engaging with the community in a manner that makes them a valued health partner.

So, master of the obvious statement No. 3: Be Social in the true meaning of social. Social means community. Be present. Be interested. Be a good listener and share what matters to others. Consider social media – not as an end game but as the trigger for a long-term relationship.

Ame Wadler is managing director for health at Zeno Group.

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