Is social media a viable method to share health policy info?

The power of social media has been accredited to reducing knowledge gaps, building communities, contributing to social movements and connecting individuals personally and professionally. But the online networking tools may be lacking in disseminating additional information that is vital to public knowledge.   

In a recent study published by JACR, Damian Roland, PhD, an associate professor in pediatric emergency medicine at the University of Leicester, examined the clinicians' use of social media—and its impact on influencing policymakers and advocacy groups. He also looked at how policymakers and government groups can use social media to benefit their agenda.   

According to Roland, the rapid growth of social media has complicated efforts to examine its impact on traditional academic and research methods, which is why there's minimal amount of research regarding social media's role in health policy.  

"It may well be that the research methodology to assess social media’s role in health policy has yet to be defined," Roland said. "Social media is almost certainly being used in health policy, but to demonstrate its impact, validated mechanisms to assess its benefit need to be more widely shared and accepted." 

Social media's ability to close the knowledge translation gap between clinicians and the policy makers is a major benefit, though seemingly underutilized. Media, social or not, have the power to influence people's thought processes and behaviors. At the same time social media is a minimal cost-effective multimedia marketing strategy, according to Roland.  

Although the right research tools exist, the problem extends far beyond that, Roland explained. A translation gap exists between clinical evidence and its implementation practice. This then delays when evidence reaches policymakers. Young people who are social media savvy and faculty members in research facilities also contribute to this because many researchers feel ill equipped to disseminate health policy information online, according to a study reviewed by Roland.  

Derived from a 2013 review of social media in health communication in 98 original studies, Roland touches on 12 potential limitations: 

  • Lack of reliability 
  • Quality concerns 
  • Lack of confidentiality 
  • Unknown risk of disclosing personal information online  
  • Risks associated with communication of harmful or incorrect advice using social media  
  • Information overload  
  • Uncertainty how to apply information found online   
  • Difference in effectiveness of social media in behavior changes  
  • Adverse health consequences 
  • Negative health behaviors 
  • Social media deter patients from visiting health professionals 
  • Unfamiliarity with social media to communicate with patients  

In response to these limitations, Roland advocates for further education and training.  "Social media represents a rapidly maturing channel of communication that can be used to disseminate health policy decisions and evidence that supports those decisions," Roland concluded. "Effective dissemination strategies, particularly for health coverage, should include a social media strategy informed by the patient perspective."