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A Double-Edged Sword:

What integration of health information onto social platforms might mean for under resourced communities

physician holding a smartphone

The expansion of health information-sharing across social media can be a powerful tool, but it is leaving out some critical populations. Over the course of the last couple of decades, social interaction across online platforms has increased tremendously and is being embraced by numerous industries. Namely, integrating health data, advice, and services over digital resources and social media has evolved how individuals seek out medical information and changed how patients communicate with their healthcare providers.

Especially over the COVID-19 pandemic, social media began to be utilized on a much wider scale for a variety of health-related purposes. The availability of health information online, including across social media, has shown to have several widespread benefits, such as:

  • Increased interactions with health providers through virtual follow-ups.

  • Greater availability of tailored health information.

  • Increase in peer and emotional support networks.

  • Sharing research findings with wider audiences.

  • Implementing public health and health policy interventions.

  • Conducting health campaigns on a large scale.

  • Disease outbreak surveillance.

  • Medical education.

These advancements have gradually combatted some major gaps in the speed of healthcare access, including establishing the option of telehealth services for patients in rural areas and building awareness of health conditions or recent diagnoses.

Given this, it is also important to acknowledge that sharing health information on social media is in no way a perfect system, especially when it comes to how underserved and historically marginalized populations interact with social media and our systems of care.

Research has found that age, income, and education are crucial systemic determinants that create and perpetuate divides in how people seek health information online. Individuals from less educated and low-income backgrounds are less likely to seek out health information through the Internet or social media, and also have very different relationships with their health providers than individuals who come from more financially and educationally stable environments. At the same time, research suggests that these demographic indicators only predict information-seeking behaviors, not social media access. This means that the disparities lie in the way patients are seeking information, not in access itself.

While systemic inequities play a role in these issues that need to be addressed down the line, there are several feasible steps that can be taken to improve health communication over social media platforms and meet diverse information-seekers at various literacy levels where they are.

  • Limiting Professional/Medical Jargon: Language typical of technical fields and easily understood by professionals in those fields may be difficult for the lay public to comprehend, creating barriers to understanding important and relevant health information. Limiting jargon and focusing on 2-3 key points makes complicated information more accessible.

  • Using Images to Illustrate Concepts: Sometimes, medical jargon cannot be avoided, and it can be even tougher to navigate technical language that is not presented in one’s native language. Using illustrations to supplement written health information can make a significant difference in understanding.

  • Offer Verbal and Written Language Translation: A second strategy for closing language barriers is to gradually embed written and verbal language translation onto social platforms and reliable medical websites so that health information can be relayed, either in writing or through audio, in a user’s first language.

  • Be Mindful of Design Across Digital Devices: Often, online sites are designed and sized for larger electronic devices, such as laptops or desktop computers, and do not appear in the same format on a smaller device, such as a cellphone, which can impact one’s ability to receive and interact with health information. Ensuring that online platforms incorporate flexible design can improve accessibility on social media.

  • Required Technical Prowess: Many online information sites and social media platforms can be complex and take time for new users. Therefore, information shared should be simplified and not require deep knowledge of social media features.

  • Cultural Awareness: Culture not only influences teaching strategies but it also impacts how someone learns information. Health content creation and resource-sharing should be conducted in a culturally competent manner. Cultural competency can look different depending on the environment and the patient, so investigating this area through research and incorporating cross-cultural education into medical training could be steps in the right direction.

  • Asking and Encouraging Questions: Creating a space in which providers leave room for patients to clarify what they may not understand at first not only improves health literacy but also establishes an open dialogue with the provider and works to build a trusting relationship. On the other hand, many patients may not know what to ask when seeking medical care or attending well visits–arming them with what to anticipate from regular check-ups and building awareness about important questions to ask their doctor could also help make strides in patient education.

While social media offers a powerful platform to expand the convenience and availability of efficient patient education, the methods and language that are used to communicate vital health information may not resonate with all communities of people that make up the audience. It is particularly difficult for communities from low literacy backgrounds to sort through misinformation online and gain access to reliable and credible health information. This makes it crucial to interact with members of these communities to understand their needs and incorporate their feedback into future approaches to health communication.

Through their work, Social Cascade aims to communicate credible health information through social media, especially to parents and caregivers. We strive to critically consider how we can better reach under-resourced populations and develop creative strategies to make the information we share as universally accessible as possible. Every community is unique and the strategies to effectively reach each community must consider the unique attributes of the community they serve. We believe technology is a critical component to achieve this level of personalization for each community. And that’s what Social Cascade is building.

This is our first article in a series of posts that we are preparing for August surrounding addressing divides in health communication and literacy in young parent populations from low-income backgrounds. Next week, we will dive deeper into the specific challenges faced by this community, what gaps exist in research, and potential solutions to these disparities.


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