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Using Social Media for Public Health, Patient Behavior Change

Social media campaigns can be useful for sparking conversation about public health issues and driving patient behavior change and education.

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Source: Thinkstock

By Sara Heath

- Social media can be an effective tool for disseminating public health messages and support better patient access to mental healthcare, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

“Given the broad reach of social media, it has been leveraged as a communication mechanism for a range of different health interventions, including smoking cessation, alcohol awareness, HIV prevention, childhood obesity, sexual health practices, and mental health awareness,” the researchers said. “However, it is not certain whether these types of social media campaigns actually influence the behaviors of intended audiences or the health care system in measurable ways.”

The researchers looked at the impact of social media in facilitating more widespread access of mental health services among adolescents and young adults. The 2011 Bell Let’s Talk campaign hosted by a Canadian telecommunications company used the Twitter platform to efficiently spread mental health awareness and reduce mental health stigma.

The campaign also donated $.05 to mental health awareness for each interaction the @Bell_LetsTalk account received.

More awareness about mental health treatment and reducing the stigma often associated with mental health treatment access may help encourage some patients to utilize treatments when they otherwise would not have done so, the researchers hypothesized.

READ MORE: Public Health Pros Use Twitter for Patient Education Messages

The researchers analyzed mental health treatment access patterns for patients between ages 10 and 24 before and after the Bell Let’s Talk campaign on Twitter.

The analysis of over 2 million mental health care visits annually between 2002 and 2015 showed temporal increases in care access during the Twitter campaigns. This means that each year during which the campaign ran, mental healthcare access saw a spike amongst adolescent and young adult patients.

Following the month-long campaigns, visit rates either decreased or plateaued, the researchers found.

Additionally, the researchers found an overall increase in mental health visits during the study period. Mental health visits in primary care settings increased for adolescent females (ages 10 to 17) from 10.2 per 1,000 patients in 2006 to 14.1 per 1,000 patients in 2015. That rate increased for males from 9.7 per 1,000 patients to 9.8 per 1,000 patients.

Adults accessing mental healthcare in the primary care setting also saw increases. Adult females saw care access increases from 26.5 per 1,000 patients in 2006 to 29.2 per 1,000 patients in 2015. Males saw increases from 16.6 per 1,000 patients to 20.3 per 1,000 patients.

READ MORE: How Social Media Can Improve Public Health, Patient Education

The researchers also noted treatment access increases in outpatient psychiatric care settings for both adolescent and young adult males and females.

There were larger increases in mental health treatment utilization for females than there were for males, the researchers noted.

“Previous research exploring gender differences related to youth accessing mental health have identified females as possessing greater willingness to seek help,” the team stated. “This alone does not provide sufficient explanation related to the further increased mental health visit rate trend observed in females compared with males.”

For example, there are certain social media trends that impact females more than males, the team posited. The societal pressure for narrow body image and lifestyle ideals on individual platforms may have an impact on the rate at which females both need and access mental health treatment.

On the whole, the year-over-year increase the researchers observed in light of the campaign was not groundbreaking, the team conceded. However, the design of the Twitter campaign may have been the reason for that.

READ MORE: Integrating Patient Engagement Strategies into Specialty Care

“As the Bell Let’s Talk campaign was primarily designed to generate awareness surrounding mental health and stigma, the lack of a substantive step change in health care utilization from normal levels is not surprising,” the researchers said.

The campaign did not have proactive elements that are usually associated with more dramatic spikes in health behavior change, the researchers explained.

“The 2012 Bell Let’s Talk campaign generated awareness related to a gradual change in behavior, rather than immediately triggering individuals with latent mental health concerns to seek formal mental health services,” the team pointed out. “Therefore, although we hypothesized that the campaign would encourage individuals to seek mental health services, the real outcomes of this campaign were likely more related to societal awareness, rather than discrete outpatient mental health system utilization.”

Previous research has also found that social media, and Twitter specifically, can support broad dissemination of certain public health initiatives. Specifically, public health professionals reportedly find Twitter useful for sharing patient education messages.

Bearing in mind the efficacy for Twitter to spread public health information, it would be useful for organizations to understand the best practices for doing so. A more targeted campaign with specific calls to action may help lead to more health behavior change.

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