Health-care providers turning to social media to help patients and their families: UAlberta medical research

Discussion forums and online support groups most common; cancer, lifestyle and weight loss most popular topics

Raquel Maurier - 25 July 2013

Health-care providers are using social media to share information and help patients manage their health struggles, shows recently published medical research from the University of Alberta. The most popular social media tools are discussion forums and online support groups, while the most common topics are cancer and lifestyle and weight loss.

Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry researcher Lisa Hartling was the lead investigator in the research review, which was published earlier this year in the prestigious peer-reviewed journal, the British Medical Journal Open. Her team studied the use of social media in the health-care arena by reviewing nearly 300 research articles about the topic.

"We wanted to see what social media platforms are being used and how they're being used in the health-care setting to share information with patients and patients' caregivers," says Michele Hamm, who works with Hartling in the Department of Pediatrics, and managed the project.

"There are many platforms being used for a variety of different conditions. While the authors' conclusions about social media were generally positive, the results don't always show a significant effect."

Hartling said a number of research teams from different parts of the world developed social media interventions to see if the approach would help patients with a particular health issue, such as needing to lose weight. Then those research teams tested their ideas. The ultimate goal of many of the studies was to see if social media can be used to promote healthy lifestyles in patients.

In addition to discussion forums and online support groups, blogs, social media networking sites and sites like YouTube and Wikipedia were also used in the health-care arena.

Hartling's study referenced a background statistic from September 2012 that 72 per cent of adult internet users seek support and medical information online, making it the third most common online activity.

This research was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). Hartling's colleagues included other researchers from the Department of Pediatrics, a researcher from the U of A's Faculty of Nursing, and a colleague from Charles Sturt University in Australia.

Hartling and her team are continuing their research in this area. They recently received additional funding from CIHR to examine how social media is used by children with mental health conditions. And Alberta Innovates - Health Solutions provided funding for her team to study how social media is used in child health.