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The Social Life of Health Information

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This post was written by CH alum, Amy Behrens. 

The report from Susannah Fox at the Pew Internet & American Life Project, The Social Life of Health Information, 2011, is a treasure trove of data for public health and health communication professionals. The report investigates the online health-seeking behaviors of adults in the U.S.

There are a number of items in the report that piqued our attention, but the data that had our office talking is about people seeking health information on social networking sites—or the lack thereof.

“Social network sites are popular, but used only sparingly for health updates and queries.”

The numbers show that most people use social networking sites exactly for their intended use—connecting socially. Users are not seeking out medical information on these sites, but rather seeking or providing social support, or supporting health-related causes. Fox notes that “social network sites are not a significant source of health information for most people, but they can be a source of encouragement and care.” An exception to this may be active groups of e-patients and caregivers who use online social networks to discuss disease management and treatment.

Many people (including us) have been guilty at one time or another of pushing the use of Facebook, MySpace, and other social networks to reach the masses with health information. The problem is that we often forget to think of whether or not that’s where our intended audiences want to be reached. According to the Pew report, only 7% of adults have gotten any health information on social network sites. A targeted, personalized approach for reaching e-patients and caregivers is likely a more valuable online endeavor.

The Pew data serve as a reminder that we need to reach people with health information when and where they are prepared to receive it. Social network sites are still valuable communication tools, especially when part of a larger outreach plan, but they are only one of the many tools we have.


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