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Navigating health information in the social world
Respiratory Care
Declaration of sponsorship Novartis Pharma AG

Navigating health information in the social world

Declaration of sponsorship Novartis Pharma AG
Read time: 10 mins
Last updated:26th Jan 2021
Published:26th Jan 2021


We are currently in the midst of a ‘second information revolution’.1 While the first revolution revolved around the spread of the written word through the press, the second is centred in the digital world. The spread of information through digital channels, such as social media, is transforming how we interact with each other around the globe.1

This digital information revolution is reflected throughout the world of healthcare, where we are faced with the unprecedented expansion in the ways we share, access, create and disseminate health-related information.2 Online users’ interaction with information has evolved from simple searching to a more dynamic and collaborative engagement with information.3 Social media sites encourage health consumers to communicate and share knowledge directly with one another4–6 and build community-wide networks.7

Explore the sections below to discover more about health information in the social world!


The potential advantages and disadvantages of social media

Social media has the potential for both negative and positive effects on public health.2,8,9

The reliability of information shared through social media is a widely recognised concern.10,11 Anyone can share information about health and medical information, regardless of professional experience or knowledge and there is the danger of social media being used to spread ‘fake news’.2

In addition, social media could have far-reaching effects on the health of patients with asthma, as they are at increased risk of having anxiety, mood disorders and psychological stress, any of which can exacerbate asthma symptoms.12

On the other hand, if appropriately monitored, social media information and responses can also be effective strategies to gain feedback on potential public health policies or the impact of education.6,13


How can digital information support consultations?

Patients will often prepare for face-to-face consultations using online sources of information, as well as using these sources to supplement the information received by their physician.14

Of patients attending a paediatric and adult allergy clinic, one in two searched online sources before their hospital appointment.14 Substantial proportions of patients searched blogs/testimonials (55%), allergy websites (32%), non-specialised websites (30%) and social networks (13%).14 Patients consulted online sources to gain more in-depth knowledge of the illness (50%), to find explanations in simpler language (24%) and to expand on information provided by their physician (21%). Only 5% sought more information because they didn’t trust their physician.14

Public health crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic are likely to drive the proportion of patients searching for information online even higher, with even greater reliance on social media to better understand health information.15 COVID-19 also led to a mass migration to digital consultations: one New York based healthcare system reported that video consultations increased from 102.4 to 801.6 daily between March 2nd and April 14th 2020, with no negative impact on patient satisfaction.16 However, not all healthcare systems have the required infrastructure or financial backing to implement mass digital consultations17 and it remains to be seen whether these trends will continue post-pandemic.


Social media and patient empowerment

Patients with respiratory conditions should be empowered to learn about and recognise severe symptoms and treat them quickly before there is progression to a life-threatening situation. Therefore, it is important patients have a solid foundation of knowledge, which will enable them to make better decisions with respect to their illness.14

In order to strengthen patient empowerment and the doctor-patient relationship, there is a need for:

  • Health-care professionals (HCPs) to ask their patients where they find information about asthma and whether social media and networks play a crucial part in their patients’ lives. HCPs should also engage with their patients to assess health indicators and record information about issues such as treatment adherence12
  • HCPs to increase their presence on the web and social media, and continue provision of health education outside of the clinic12,14
  • Virtual media tools with useful and sound information using straightforward language which patients can refer to in order to clarify and resolve any doubts14


Social media

A broad term referring to any digital tool (such as websites or apps) that allows the sharing of information and user-created content between users.

Fake news

Fabricated or misleading information that imitates news media content in form, but not in organisational process or intent.


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