Social media's role in health

Source: NHE Sept/Oct 2018

Social media has a massive role to play in health – infection prevention and control in particular, write Brett Mitchell, professor of nursing, and Hannah Rosebrock, research officer, both of Australia’s Avondale College.

How many times have you checked your Facebook today? Since the dawn of the internet some 40 years ago, social media has evolved into a cult phenomenon. In 1969 the first ‘node-to-node’ message was sent from the laboratory of computer science professor Leonard Kleinrock to the receiving computer at the Stanford Research Institute as part of a military project funded by the US Department of Defence. Now, we have rapid communication methods using social media.

Social media: what exactly is it? Very broadly defined, social media are platforms and applications that allow users to create and share content, which is often accomplished by means of personalised profiles. Today, social media can help you to find friends (Facebook), your next job (LinkedIn), or even the (next) love of your life (Tinder).

For health professionals, social media presents an excellent opportunity to educate, engage, monitor and communicate with a diverse public and with colleagues. In practical terms, this can involve, but is not limited to, the provision of health information, mechanisms to collect data, health promotion education initiatives, and networking/communication opportunities. The latter can be diverse in both the delivery (forums, Facebook, Twitter) and those involved.

In the area of infection prevention and control, healthcare professionals are well versed with platforms such as Twitter. Twitter has proved its usefulness at conferences as a means of building networks and facilitating real-time dialogue and discussions, within and beyond the realm of academics. Like many conferences around the world, at this year’s Infection Prevention Society conference in Glasgow, delegates will again be sharing information about the conference with those present or not. 

In the area of health, blogs are also used. These offer alternatives to the traditional dissemination of information via peer-reviewed journals, often making use of a simpler and more concise language. There are several examples of blogs in the infection prevention and control area, including HAI controversies, Reflections in IPC, and InfectionDigest. These, coupled with other social media platforms, provide the opportunity to assist in the churning and rapid dissemination of new research, innovation or time-critical information. Of course, they also come with limitations, given the largely unfiltered opportunity to debate, discuss or voice opinions.

Whilst those working in infection prevention and control may be embracing social media, perhaps there is the opportunity to extend this further and improve our communication with the wider public on key issues. A survey by the World Health Organization highlighted this, demonstrating the unfamiliarity with the language of antibiotic resistance in the general public. Arguably, social media has the potential to reduce the exclusiveness of knowledge, and present it in a more meaningful way.


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