Social media users more private about posting health info

By Kayla Franson

For the Deseret News

Published: Monday, April 1 2013 5:15 p.m. MDT

People turn to social media for health information, but they're slow to post their own info.

BYU photo, Jaren Wilkey

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PROVO — Americans regularly share delicious recipes, questions about raising kids and relationship updates on social media sites. What they don't share is medical information.

A new BYU study looked at how, although many people search for medical information online, they are less likely to contribute their own experiences or knowledge.

From physician or facility reviews to how to cope with a chronic illness, there are plenty of conversations to join through blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other sites, according to a study by Rosemary Thackeray, associate professor in BYU’s health science department, and a team of researchers recently published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

“What we found was that people are more likely to go online and look at rankings and reviews,” Thackeray said, "and they’re less likely to actually contribute to that discussion that’s going on."

Many people are seeking the health information but possibly too few are actively posting their own information and experiences to add to the pool.

“It isn’t what we’ve always thought,” said Josh West, a BYU health science professor. "I guess the value in creating (is) there is just more information that people can relate to. More people that have the same symptoms or similar conditions that I might have, and so therefore I might find this information useful.”

The researchers said they would like to see more people contributing, but the increase in quantity has unknown potential effects. Benjamin Crookston, assistant health science professor, said with more contributors the information pool could become more diluted and less accurate, but it may also have the opposite result. Like Wikipedia, incorrect information could be promptly set straight if enough people are willing to post.

“I believe that as quantity improves, so will quality,” West said. “I think that’s one of the real gems in social media, is that in large part it’s self corrective. Incorrect health information that’s posted really shouldn’t be as great a concern to us because … (if) more people are posting, then someone’s going to recognize there’s an error there and probably correct it or make note of that.”

Thackeray said with more accurate and reliable health information, people can become more informed and involved in the decisions they make with their doctors.

“I think it’s going to be complementary to working with your healthcare provider,” she said. “It’s really both of those … not one in exclusion of each other. I think it’ll just make people more informed healthcare consumers.”

With social media fanatics posting just about anything, it’s intriguing to think about why more don’t contribute in the health sphere.

“(It) could be that health information is seen as something to be left to the professionals,” wrote Crookston in an email. “It could be that they don’t want to take the time to post info or are afraid they don’t have all the necessary information.”

Further, Thackeray said the social media users just may not be interested, or they may think their contributions are too private or not newsworthy. She said everyone can benefit from learning about others’ experiences though, good or bad, which should then help people become more informed decision-makers.

With all the possible benefits of posting about health information online, social media users could begin increasing efforts to improve the quality and quantity of available data. Those who believe in the positive possibilities hope the next time people visit the doctor, they consider letting family and friends know about their experience with the facility and staff — not just about how the kids behaved.

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