How social media has impacted people's online health information seeking and sharing is the subject of the latest report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project - The social life of health information.
A number of people have already written up toplines for the report, and I suggest Susannah Fox's cheat sheet at e-patients.net and Josh Seidman at the Information Therapy Blog. They provide lots of the details so I am not going to repeat them here.
I did find two quotes from the report worth pondering for how they might influence our work:
Mobile access is changing the behavior of internet users and, in particular, changing the behavior of health care consumers. The mobile internet draws people into conversations about health as much as online tools enable research.
…technology is not an end, but a means to accelerate the pace of discovery, widen social networks, and sharpen the questions someone might ask when they do get to talk to a health professional. Technology can help to enable the human connection in health care and the internet is turning up the information network’s volume.
I also was playing around with understanding the data in a more visual way than the charts and graphs in the report. Here is what I came up as the critical pieces of the puzzle - with the caveat that there are differences among demographic groups. But overall, the view from my POV and the data is this:
What this chart depicts are the percentage of Americans (note: not internet users) that report using different sources for health information. Health professionals (86%) are the most frequently reported ones, followed by friend or family member (68%); going online (57%); books or other print reference materials (54%); social media including blogs and social network sites (37%) and insurance providers (33%).
One of the difficulties I have with reporting data in this manner is that we do not get a dynamic picture of what sources of information people access FIRST and in what sequence. How do they go about solving the health challenge they are facing - whether it be symptoms they or a family member are experiencing, how to lose weight, which doctor or hospital to go to? And I am sure some health issues are approached differently than others. However, the authors of the report offer two snippets of information on page 16 that start bringing this dynamic into focus as it relates to online activities. As shown in the red and purple lines, once people have accessed information online, 66% report they are likely to discuss it with a friend or family member (red line), whereas only 'a handful' of people said that they discussed it with a health professional (purple one).
These two paths raise an interesting question about how people go about validating the health information they find on websites. And I am also willing to wager that health professionals, except in the cases of immediate needs and emergencies, are not the first place people go for their information. How the search and problem-solving process unfolds for different health issues needs to be looked at much more closely and with a full appreciation of the social network effects that are entwined in them. The data available in this report begin to articulate some of the contours we should be investigating.