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The Intersection of Public Health and Social Media

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Patients’ relationships with their health care providers are built on a foundation of communication. Doctors, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, nurse midwives ask questions, patients provide answers. Patients express unusual symptoms or other concerns, health care providers respond to these issues. Dialogue informs diagnosis.

Imagine if such two-way communications occurred without any specific interactions between patients and and their health care providers. Social media and health-care informatics are combining to provide this opportunity, with clear benefits for both patients and the health-care delivery system.

Information is everything when it comes to a clinician understanding a patient’s condition. Today, valuable patient data can be automatically retrieved from social networking sites to learn such nuggets of insight as a person “not sleeping well these days,” or “dealing with this headache that just won’t go away,” or “coping with a cut on my arm that just won’t heal.”

Generally, people don’t contact their health care providers for such problems, which might be evidence of an actual medical emergency. The future of provider-to-patient communication could also include social media. Clinicians could take the opportunity to pass on health advice to the broader public using social media sites such as LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, while also responding to specific medical information that is relayed by individuals over those channels.

Health informatics offers the possibility to retrieve, store, and process patient data that are provided on social networking sites, including such unstructured data as a photograph of a suspicious-looking mole or a wound that resists healing. Not only does that offer a powerful means of marketing the expertise and skill of a health-care provider, it broadcasts a message that the provider sincerely cares about public health. Patient referrals are likely in either case.

For health care providers communicating via social media with current patients, health-care information that otherwise may have been elusive is now captured. A patient who writes on Facebook his weekend drinking habits may have previously told his doctor that he drank alcohol on “very rare occasions” and “no more than one drink a day.” The provider can contact the person to inquire if all is well and suggest that individuals make an appointment. And by populating a patient’s Electronic Health Record with this real-time information, a more comprehensive picture of the person’s health is acquired.

Providers also can use social media to react to health-care related news, such as providing input on a recent strain of influenza that is making the rounds or the risks inherent in the Zika virus. Even such simple advice as how to bend one’s legs when shoveling snow in the wintertime can have an immediate impact on public health. Similar advice can be offered on the wealth of online discussion groups formed around a particular health-related topic, such as colon cancer screening and the benefits of exercise.1 Sophisticated data mining has been used to detect trends such as a potential increase in influenza cases by tracking the number of Internet searches related to flu symptoms.

Social media also provides the opportunity for individuals to obtain medical advice without necessarily visiting a doctor’s office. For example, the aforementioned photograph of a “suspicious mole” may be perfectly normal, a the provider can write back. This has the benefit of preserving both patient and provider time, reducing unnecessary clinical visits and hospital readmissions. Providers thus have more time on their hands to focus on seriously ill or injured people who require more urgent attention.2

Learning about how social media can aid in healthcare is important. If you are considering a position in the Health Informatics field, review The University of Scranton’s Online Master of Science in Health Informatics program and be at the forefront of technology and healthcare.


  1. Referral MD. (n.d.) Where social media and health informatics intersect Retrieved from
  2. Health IT Exchange. (2012). Social media in health care: Its role in patient engagement. Retrieved from

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