A study last year from Harvard with Brigham and Women's Hospital deemed social networks the "Wild West" when it comes to health information. The study looked at diabetes communities on Facebook, with the main concern being promotional activity of non-FDA approved products.
But the study also found that social networks really serve a purpose in healthcare today: the ability to learn from others with similar experiences.
This isn't surprising. In past studies of shared medical conditions (e.g., rheumatoid arthritis), participants in face-to-face focus groups have shown an improvement in health status (and, incidentally, have informed medical practitioners on how to provide better care).
Consumers are increasingly moving toward being empowered patients. Manhattan Research reports that 99 million consumers have reached that status, meaning they've participated in health-related activities online. The firm has found that about 46 percent of these patients have changed health decisions due to information found online, and almost 28 percent have asked to change a prescription or treatment based on online information.
Staggering statistics to think about as marketers. Consumers are no longer relying on doctors as the primary source for information.
As consumer activity shifts more online, it makes sense that it's where consumers are asking questions about doctors, conditions, and treatments.
Pew's Internet and American Life Project this month found 66 percent of Internet users look for information on specific diseases and conditions. With Facebook, consumers can reach out to friends and family with these questions; on sites like MedHelp, which form communities around conditions, you can ask someone with first-hand experience. These expanded places for conversations and learning from one another can provide valuable insight that may not have been obtained before online social networks existed.
Consumers aren't the only ones sharing information. Many hospitals, doctors, OTC medicines, and pharma brands have a presence on social networks.
A "Wild West" atmosphere can develop if the pages aren't continually monitored. Consumers are turning to branded Facebook pages to get information.
On the Mayo Clinic's Facebook page, you see a host of consumers listing their symptoms and conditions; on Tylenol's Facebook page, you see questions about taking the drug with milk. While responses to each post aren't recommended, information and queries posted to pages have to be monitored, especially in the case of medications and treatments.
However, if large numbers of people are commenting on drugs, treatments, and the quality of healthcare professionals, the sample sizes may be large enough to produce statistically relevant insights through analysis into drug effectiveness, treatment outcomes, and who's more effective. Answers derived from "social media data mining" are likely to become part of our reason for participating on social networks.
And, what about connecting with doctors on Facebook? The Pew Report found that 44 percent of Internet users are looking for information on doctors and hospitals.
While the idea of creating a social network presence can be daunting for physicians -- think about all of the potential customer queries -- there are a number of ways that doctors are involved with social media.
A large amount of medical practices do have Facebook pages, and use it to post general information; many others blog or use Twitter. But, overall the medical practitioners are still working to get a handle on social networks, and the AMA is continuing to study the issue.
So where does this leave us?
Consumers are flocking to social networks, and searching for health information. But, before jumping to create a social network presence, brands and organizations must put steps in place to ensure the pages are monitored to prevent misinformation, and to ensure content complies with regulations.
The Wild West? Not exactly, as these networks are helping informed consumers get information from trusted sources and from each other.
Social networks can be invaluable for helping consumers with healthcare decisions, and also brand awareness for health practitioners, organizations and treatments -- as long as it's done right.
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