Social Media and Health Care: Opportunities and Challenges

Possibilities for Prenatal Support and Outreach?

A while back, I blogged about the Use of Facebook by Aboriginal Groups in Canada (May 31, 2011) and suggested that social media has untapped potential for health promotion, community development and action research.

Well, I just ran into an interesting report on the use of social media to improve healthcare quality, released by two Ontario think tanks, The Change Foundation and The Health Strategy Innovation Cell.

The report says that patients and health care providers are definitely working, thinking, sharing, and searching for information on-line. However, health care has tended to be a slow adopter to social media like blogs, LinkedIn, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Most organizations are using social media as a marketing and communications tool to improve their online image and visibility as well as for philanthropy, recruitment, customer service, patient support and knowledge translation.

The main stumbling block to wider use is a lack of a set of accepted best practices that would enable organizations to become less risk-averse. Social media presents a host of ethical concerns in terms of privacy, confidentiality, and autonomy and raises other bigger questions.  Are we violating patients’ privacy by listening in or soliciting comments online? Are we ignoring the people who don’t participate in social media?Will social media really help us reach the people we want to reach?

Regardless, it appears that health care organizations in Canada are increasingly using social media. The report’s authors suggest a number of strategies to address some of these concerns, such as:

  • Understand the “privacy payoff.”
  • Keep current on legal developments and leading practices in privacy and data control.
  • Learn from other sectors and resources.
  • Develop a policy for employee use of social media, and take it to your board.
  • Be aware of the ethics of “listening technology.”

A second part to the project is an eToolkit which will be available soon at The Toolkit will include an editable online directory of Canadian organizations using social media, a What’s Hot and Further Reading sections that are intended to work like a real-time literature, and, of course, the opportunity to discuss all these issues via Facebook and Twitter.


So, what does this all mean for providing support to women? Well, I’m not sure yet. A marketing survey done in the US in January  2011 suggests that Facebook and email are the two dominant forms of online communication used by mothers and that 1 in 3 moms blog and tweet. The Internet is undoubtedly a frequently used resource for pregnancy and parenting information. And more and more health care organizations are trying to find ways of using social media effectively and ethically.

For example, Peel Public Health did a survey of their existing clients which found that  that parents turn to the internet for information on health, parenting and pregnancy and most are also active Facebook users. Clients already had the option to speak with public health nurses over the telephone. Now Peel Public Health has launched a Facebook page: Parenting in Peel. For those not on Facebook, you can visit or email the Parenting in Peel Facebook team at

In terms of providing information about alcohol use during pregnancy, lots of questions emerge out of these discussions and innovations:

  • Does social media provide a more comfortable way of asking questions about a potentially judgmental issue?
  • Does anonymity support better care for some clients or do health care providers lose the opportunity to build relationships which provide the foundation for safety and trust around all health issues.
  • Do Facebook pages from health care organizations stand out as trustworthy sources on-line or are they competing with other questionable sources out there?
  • Are the groups of women who are most likely to need information or support around their alcohol use during pregnancy the same ones who have integrated social media into their daily lives?

Any thoughts on the possibilities and challenges of using social media in FASD prevention?

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