Social media ‘likes’ healthcare - Happy + Well : Happy + Well

Social media ‘likes’ healthcare

Written by on August 11, 2015 in Digital Health, Relationships, Wellness with 0 Comments

images-1We’ve known for a very long time that infectious diseases can spread from social contact. If I’ve got a cold and I sneeze in your vicinity, you’ll probably get it too. What we haven’t known until fairly recently is that non-communicable diseases such as obesity and heart disease are also socially transmitted. In other words, if your group of friends or even associates are overweight or smokers, you’ll probably be too.

Enrico Coiera is the director for the Centre for Health Informatics at the Australian Institute for Health Innovation at UNSW, and he’s being interviewed here about this phenomenon of social contagion and how it might play out in the digital age given what we already know about the effectiveness of exploiting off-line social networks in order to influence health outcomes.

Regarding the latter, Coiera says “we’ve actually been very good” and refers to Alcoholics Anonymous as a case in point. “What you do there is you are artificially constructing a new network of peers with different behaviours and different norms, and that makes a big difference.”

He and others are now interested in replicating what happens off-line online. One possible scenario being envisaged is to change the behaviour of a group by finding “a buddy who you would add into that network who would exemplify the behaviours you would want. So if you want somebody to exercise more, here’s a health buddy, for example.”

Another is to use existing social networks to try and promulgate certain health messages, for example, disseminating safe sex messages within the gay community.

And another is to use crowd sourcing. This is the practice of engaging a ‘crowd’ or group – usually from an online community – for a common goal. Coiera says that where health service organisations have traditionally been the source of data, crowd sourcing could let us “tap into the bigger source of information out there which is the patient and the consumer.” It could also help us “find other people like [us] to share information with and maybe to help each other?”

Coiera says social media could also be deployed as a tool to improve the standard of care delivered by health care workers since “one of the biggest sources of encouragement to do a certain thing or to practise a certain way comes from your peers. So people tend to practise like their peers. So if we can shape the way the peer group works, shape the sorts of things that people do that makes sure that they are evidenced based, that’s a real opportunity.”

Most people equate social media with Facebook and Twitter yet Coiera who defines social media as “anything in which we interact online where the social group is present” says mainstream technologies probably aren’t appropriate for healthcare due to privacy, consent and other requirements. “For example, the idea of putting a buddy in to change my network is a great idea but that probably needs to be done with consent. I don’t want to have my social group manipulated without me realising it.”

Coiera says he’s optimistic about the results of studies currently underway looking at this issue of social media and social diseases and believes it’s only a matter of time before “the penny will drop that this is a new way of doing business, and that network based therapy as opposed to person based therapy … is something we can use to tackle … all these lifestyle changes that we have. We’re on the cusp of probably a big change in dealing with some of these very intractable health conditions.”


Visit The Wellness Show Expo 1-3 April 2016, Hordern Pavilion & Royal Hall of Industries, Sydney – a free showcase of the innovation and technology that are transforming the way we stay fit and healthy. For more information and to register for your free visitor pass click here.

This event will be co-located with The Digital Health Show which will also feature an expo as well as a major conference on the deployment of digital health technologies for administrators, clinicians and technology professionals in healthcare. For more information and to register for your free visitor pass to the expo click here. To register for the conference click here.

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