Social Media’s Role in Global Health

Participants of the Social Media panel: Daudi Were, Joseph Tucker, Gavin Tuffey, Heidi Larson and Nick Perkins (from left to right)

Participants of the Social Media panel: Daudi Were, Joseph Tucker, Gavin Tuffey, Heidi Larson and Nick Perkins (from left to right)

The answer to many global health problems lies right in each of our mobile phones. You may come across it while you are checking your friends’ facebook status and sharing your latest reading advice on Twitter. The problem is: You probably won’t recognize what treasure you can find there.

Because, as with all precious treasures, it’s well hidden. More than 900 million uses share a part of their world with others on Facebook each month. Another 140 million users give short updates about their lives and views on Twitter. Thereby, millions of posts and tweets are generated each day. Among them: valuable information on patients and their specific needs. “Health is one of the number one topics discussed on social media” says Gavin Tuffey from GlaxoSmithKline. If we could just seperate this specific health data from the less relevant data, we would be able to survey the effects of treatments, learn more patients’ opinions and reveal significant lacks of information.

We still are far away from an extensive use of this data. However, there are a couple of pioneers. Four of them shared their experience on the World Health Summit in Berlin. Their discussion  revealed that social media in healthcare has actually two sides: a good and a bad one.

Heidi Larson, Senior Lecturer from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, talked about a quite common example. As anti-vaccination groups are as active on social media platforms as neutral minded patients, you can find both opinions on Twitter. That is why polio vaccine initiatives in Nigeria and Pakistan were equally praised and condemned there. So how should other users know which opinion can be trusted?

There is still no simple answer for this problem. Providing reliable health information via digital channels is still a great challenge. However, in other parts of the digital health universum, success might be less far away.

Daudi Were, for example, found a way to use social media for coping with crises. He works for a company called Ushahidi. The Swahilian word for “testimony” or “witness” gives hints about its use: Were and his colleagues map violence and medical need by analyzing data from SMS, e-mail and social media. Ushahidi has already successfully been able to map violence in Gaza and Syra or demolition during the earthquake in Haiti – and thereby made intervention more successful.

However, this technique obviously has its limits. Even though mobile and social media use is quickly growing all over the world, the public still isn’t equally representated by these channels. Portland and Tweetminster released a study in 2012 showing that Twitter users in Africa are even much younger than in other continents. According to their findings, 60 percent of them are between 21 and 29.

But the popularity among the youths also makes social media useful to tackle diseases that are especially common in the younger ages. Thus Joseph Tucker, from the University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, uses digital channels to educate about sexually transmitted diseases as HIV and Hepatitis. His platform is run in the Chinese city Guangzhou, where young men don’t know much about the risk and transmission of these fatal viruses.  Usually nobody here gets tested. Tucker and his colleagues especially try to change that by addressing homosexuals, who are at high risk carrying theses diseases with them.

Admittedly, this all is quite a slow start for the social media revolution in healthcare. To use its means to a greater extent, more users and more expertise is urgently needed. It’s worth it. Because we all know that the biggest treasures are also the hardest to uncover.

Images: Teaser Ushahidi from whiteafrican CC BY 2.0; Header: Shari Langemak


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