U.S. consumers turn to Facebook, Twitter for healthcare answers

Information found on social networks often leads to second opinions, survey shows

A third of U.S. consumers now use social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter to seek medical information and track and share symptoms. They're also using the sites to vent about doctors, drugs, treatments, medical devices and health plans.

The survey of 1,040 U.S. consumers was put together by consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and includes data from a separate survey of healthcare and pharmaceutical executives on how social media is used in their business strategies.

Not unexpectedly, young adults rely on social networks for healthcare information far more than older Americans. The survey found that more than 80% of those between the ages of 18 and 24 said they're likely to share health information through social media channels -- and nearly 90% said they would trust information found there.

By comparison, less than half (45%) of those surveyed between the ages of 45 and 64 said they're likely to share health information via social media.

The PwC report showed that four in 10 consumers have used social media to find health-related consumer reviews of treatments or doctors; one in three have sought information related to other patients' experiences with their disease; and one in four have posted comments about their health experience.

"The power of social media for health organizations is in listening and engaging with consumers on their terms," Kelly Barnes, U.S. Health Industries leader at PwC, said in a statement. "Social media has created a new customer service access point where consumers expect an immediate response."

Seventy-two percent of those surveyed said they would use social networks for scheduling doctor visits and nearly half said they would expect a response within a few hours after doing so.

When asked whether information on social networks would affect their health decisions, 45% said it would play in role in whether to get a second opinion; 41% said it would affect their choice of a specific doctor, hospital or medical facility; and 34% said it would affect any decision to take a certain medication.

PwC's report found that consumer activity on social media sites dwarfs that of healthcare organizations such as hospitals, insurance and pharmaceutical companies. Social media, the report notes, is changing the nature of healthcare interaction, and "health organizations that ignore this virtual environment may be missing opportunities to engage consumers," Barnes said.

Community sites that allow people to weigh in on various medical and healthcare issues had 24 times more social media activity than corporate sites, according to PwC. That shows how much room to grow corporate sites have.

"Health organizations have an opportunity to use social media as a way to better listen, participate in discussions and engage with consumers in ways that extend their interaction beyond a clinical encounter," Barnes said. "Savvy adopters are viewing social media as a business strategy, not just a marketing tool."

PwC's report includes the results from its Health Research Institute (HRI) social media survey of U.S. consumers in February and 124 members of the eHealth Initiative (eHI), a national association focused on health information and technology. HRI found that eight out of 10 healthcare companies had a presence on various social media sites.

HRI also interviewed more than 30 industry executives and tracked the social media activity of a number of hospitals, insurers, drug manufacturers and online patient communities to create a "week-in-the-life of social health" snapshot.

PwC says that hospitals, insurers and pharmaceutical manufacturers can benefit from the interactive nature of social media, which can offer instant feedback on products or services along with new ideas for innovation. That could lead to higher-quality care, more loyal customers, increased efficiency and even revenue growth.

Eighty-two percent of those surveyed by HRI indicated that their organization's social media efforts are managed by marketing/communications employees. The PwC report also said few organizations indicated that their IT departments and digital teams oversee their social media strategies. And half of those surveyed said they are concerned about how to integrate social media information into business strategy and processes.

"Social media is another source of business intelligence that provides information at the aggregate level, not only about what consumers 'like,' but what they need, how they behave and when their experiences demand an immediate response," said Daniel Garrett, U.S. Health Information Technology leader, PwC. "Health organizations can engage IT to integrate social data intelligence with existing systems and processes, yet most are still struggling with how to manage the data from their own clinical systems."

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His e-mail address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

See more by Lucas Mearian on Computerworld.com.

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