By Suzanne M. Murphy
In a world where most people are connected on one or more social media platforms, the power of a social media campaign has never been higher. It is estimated that in 2019, 2.77 billion of the world’s population will be on social media, this figure is up from the 2017 figure of 2.46 billion. Facebook alone has 1.86 billion active users. This offers huge potential for sharing of information and ideas. Health systems do not tend to tap into this market when launching health education programmes. Individual pages for various support groups have a wealth of information on their area of relevance but there are few pages offering comprehensive health information. The Health service executive (HSE), Ireland’s public system, has a facebook page which offers a lot of information about the various health campaigns currently being undertaken by the HSE. However the page has just over 85,000 likes, while the estimated number of Irish people actively using Facebook is estimated to be 2.2 million, more than 50% of the population. This is just one example of how a health service is not doing enough to engage with their service users.
Since the launch of the Human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine in Ireland and in the United Kingdom (UK) in 2008, there has been a rapid decline in the uptake of the vaccine . This can be partially attributed to the power of various social media groups. The vaccine has been approved by the World Health Organization, the International Federation of Obstetrics and Gynaecologists and the National Immunisation Advisory Committee. However uptake of the vaccine dropped from from 90% to just 50% across Ireland. Various groups objected to the addition of the vaccine to Ireland’s childhood vaccination schedule. Groups were predominantly organised by parents who feel that their daughter’s health has suffered since receiving the vaccine. They believe the vaccine is associated with chronic fatigue syndrome, complex regional pain and postural orthostatic tachycardia. Multiple studies regarding side effects of the HPV vaccine have found no correlation between the vaccine and the conditions above . However the strong social media influence of the groups against the vaccine had a wide reach and the influence of this on the decline in vaccine uptake is not something that can be dismissed.
Similarly, In 1998, a doctor in the UK, Andrew Wakefield, along with several other authors published a case series in the Lancet suggesting a link between the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. The research was quickly disproved and the Lancet retracted the paper. The medical paper got so much media attention at the time, that there led to a global decline. It took more than a decade for the numbers of people vaccinating their children to return to how they were prior to the paper’s publication . Now in 2018, Wakefield’s claims are still being shared by the public on social media sites, highlighting how social media can allow a set of beliefs to persist.
For many individuals the internet and social media can be the first port of call when they have concerns regarding their health. There are a lot of individual charities and support groups doing fantastic work in sharing factual, accessible information about a variety of conditions. However a gap persists for health services who wish to promote better health. Nowadays, as social media plays an important role in information sharing (correct information or not), healthcare campaigns are many times put in jeopardy. HPV and MMR vaccines are just two examples of the potential influence of social media. However it should be noted that the power of social media is not limited to just vaccinations. Social media can allow for the promotion of new treatment options available that patients may not otherwise be aware of. This is particularly useful in more rural communities, where patients may not have the same access to the newest information and technologies.Furthermore it provides a forum for patients and their loved ones and carers, who may not be in a position to attend support groups. Group therapy can be hugely beneficial for helping the sense of isolation that can often accompany a chronic illness. It also allows for the sharing of ideas and research amongst colleagues.
Going forward doctors and health systems will need to consider a new approach to health campaigning. An effort should be made to share information across all social media platforms. Perhaps, each health service should consider having a social media manager who, through liaison with healthcare professionals, can ensure the safe and effective sharing of knowledge. They should be clear, concise, and written in an easy language, so that everyday people with little or no medical knowledge may understand and spread the information. This will allow them to be in charge of their own health.
Suzanne Murphy is a fourth year medical student in the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland (RCSI) . She originally trained as a general nurse at Trinity College Dublin in 2011. In 2014, she completed a postgraduate diploma in tissue viability from RCSI before returning to RCSI fulltime in 2015 as a medical student. Suzanne is interested in pursuing a career in neurosurgery and her research interests include epilepsy and hydrocephalus. She is currently the director of RCSI’s student run journal, RCSI Student Medical Journal). You can find her on twitter at @suzannemmurphy1.
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