The Social Media Good, Bad & Ugly in Health Care


Building an online brand has become so integrated into our society that establishing a social media presence has become the norm across generations. In the U.S. alone, the proportion of adults using social media has increased from 8% to 72% since 2005. The virtual domain has shaped traditional world into a new form, and the health care industry is no exception.  Professionals in relevant health care organizations must recognize the ever-increasing importance of social media because the conversations happening across these channels will continue with or without them.

The Good

As with most industries, social media facilitates faster and simpler information sharing. An online communication platform can assist physicians in listening to experts, researching medical developments, consulting colleagues and networking. For instance, Sermo is a “physician-only” social networking community that demonstrates the opportunities social media creates for the health care industry. Physicians representing 68 specialties in all 50 states gather on this site to network, discuss treatment options and to seek peer advice. The program also provides a rating system by which doctors can rank posts on the site based on perceived credibility.

Social media not only enables conversation amongst health care professionals (HCPs), but also between patients and their HCP. In the U.S., eight in 10 Internet users search for health information online, and 74% of these people use social media to do so. Patients now expect to have 24/7 access to critical health information and social media enables that possibility.

Online platforms can empower education on a global scale amid distance and time constraints. Although controversial, there has been an increase of doctors and surgeons providing updates from the operating room on Twitter. Surgeons can use respective hashtags to essentially live stream a surgery to colleagues halfway across the world and even answer questions in real-time.

tweets from the operating room

The information-on-demand era calls on HCPs to provide information consistently and globally, which can most efficiently be done via social media.

The Bad

While social media offers new opportunities for information sharing, it also allows non-experts to share content just as rapidly as health agencies, if not more so. As a result, health information found on social media lacks quality and reliability. Yet, 90% of respondents aged 18 to 24 said they trust medical information shared on social media networks in a PwC Health Research Institute survey. This points to a concerning correlation between medical information online and widely accepted medical myths.

An online presence also enhances potential breaches in patient privacy. The evolution of social media in health care is driven by a growing demand for transparency. As health care industries increase their presence on these networking sites, it escalates the risk of accidentally releasing sensitive data to the public. Employee guidelines regarding the appropriate use of social media can help resolve the issue of patient privacy; however only 31% of health care organizations have specific social media guidelines in writing.

While the downfalls of social media in health care are abundant, many of the risks can be mitigated with preventive strategies.        

The Ugly

One stark example of social media gone wrong in health care is the viral response to Ebola. While it is important to recognize the seriousness of the Ebola crisis, the online reaction to the first diagnosis of a case in the United States illustrates the ability of social media to perpetuate unwarranted fear and misinformation.

Following the first U.S. diagnosis on September 30, 2014, mentions of the virus on Twitter skyrocketed from about 100 per minute to more than 6,000. Meanwhile consistent streams of posts included inaccurate information that Ebola can be spread through the air, water or food. Opinion leaders also joined the spread of inaccurate information, contributing to the downward spiral of Ebola distress on Twitter. Collectively two tweets from Chris Brown and Donald Trump reached nearly 45,000 people, causing additional turmoil.

As a result of the online panic, Iowa the Department of Public Health was forced to issue a statement dispelling social media rumors. Social media has its benefits when it comes to the health industry, but unless its power is harnessed in a precise and efficient manner, we could have dozens of medical scares, like Ebola, without reasonable cause.

Moving Forward

In response to the shift towards a virtually-networked sphere, health care practitioners are obliged to turn to social media to maintain the flow of information.  A survey of more than 4,000 physicians conducted by the social media site QuantiaMD found that more than 65% of physicians use some form of social media for professional reasons. The social media takeover is inevitable and its best for HCPs to harness these opportunities for better health care and do their best to mitigate the threats.


About the author

Melanie is an intern at TogoRun and a senior at American University, studying Public Relations with minors in Psychology and Marketing. Melanie is also the newly elected President of AU’s PRSSA. She has dreams of a professional journey where Public Relations and Health Communications meet with an ultimate career goal in Crisis Communication. Originally from Philadelphia, Melanie recently spent six months in Greece, where she obtained her sailing license. In her spare time, she likes to run and try new food trucks in DC.