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Patients Get Social About Their Health

Healthcare marketers cautious while awaiting guidance from the FDA

August 3, 2011

Consumers are using social networks to air their daily triumphs and challenges—health and wellness being no exception. Despite consumers sharing information and having conversations about medical issues in social forums, healthcare marketers are having a more difficult time meeting the audience in social media channels.

In its April 2011 survey, Deloitte Center for Health Solutions found that 11% of US healthcare consumers use social networks to find or share health information and 8% use blogs. The respondents who use blogs and social networks for health purposes do so to comment about the healthcare system, to comment about doctors and hospitals and to share personal healthcare experiences with others.

US Healthcare Consumers Who Use Blogs and Social Networks to Find or Share Health Information, April 2011 (% of respondents)

In a study titled “Seeking Social Solace,” research firm Russell Herder monitored the way consumers talk about medical issues in social media channels. The study found that not only are a large percentage of US healthcare consumers seeking health information online, they are often using the internet for support and to find others who have experienced similar health issues. The study finds that blogs are the most popular channel for disclosing a medical diagnosis, followed by online message boards and then Facebook and Twitter.

Online Medical Diagnosis Disclosures of US Internet Users, by Social Media Channel, April 2011 (% of total)

The rise of health advocacy and disease support pages on Facebook indicates there is an appetite for such support in social media channels. Susan G. Komen for the Cure, a breast cancer and breast health non-profit organization, for example, has nearly 500,000 “likes” on its Facebook page. The American Diabetes Association Facebook page has more than 100,000 “likes.” According to the Russell Herder study, among online disclosures of a medical diagnosis, 40% are cancer and 16% are diabetes.

Although consumers are sharing their healthcare journeys with others in public arenas online, it hasn’t been easy for healthcare marketers to jump in and join the conversation. A survey by communications software company Varolii notes that only 26% of healthcare organizations are employing social media strategies to reach customers. The most common strategies are through more traditional channels—email, direct mail and websites or blogs.

Strategies US Healthcare Organizations Are Currently Using to Reach Customers, March 2011 (% of respondents)

Long-awaited rules and guidance from the US Food and Drug Administration are at least partially to blame for the lack of social media engagement by healthcare companies. The FDA has delayed the release of its highly anticipated social media guidelines, which were due in Q1 2011. Although the FDA has been reluctant to announce an updated timeframe for the guidelines, an FDA spokesperson referenced their issuance as a “high priority.” Until the guidelines are officially released, healthcare marketers are exercising care in their social media efforts to avoid a warning letter of improper usage from the FDA.

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Check out today’s other article, “Hispanics Have Highest Tablet Adoption.”


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