The problem with social media and health

Humans have invented tools to solve problems for themselves since day one. We need to bang something into the ground. That rock over there will work. We need to communicate with one another over a distance. Hey, how about some smoke signals?

The social web is just another tool to solve our communication problems in addition to smoke signals and the telephone. It’s absolutely wonderful at spreading new ideas, new being the operative word.

The social web is also great at spreading meaningless drivel— when you woke up, what you ate, what you’re listening to, where you went for a drink, etc.. For many reasons, some of us still want to tell the world these things almost to justify our own existence as proof that, yes, we exist in the world, and yes, we do things. The social web, in order to function, requires users to engage in meaningless drivel. If Facebook was only for big, important ideas, well, it would be relatively empty. I consider myself kind of intelligent, and if a status update had to pass big important idea muster, my Facebook would be incredibly empty.

In order for social media to exist and function, it must engage users on a daily basis. And therein lies the problem with social media and health. But to understand this, we have to define health to users.

The first user group is the young, active person who maybe gets sick or injures themselves a few times a year. The definition of health to this user is “not having to think about it” until they get sick or hurt themselves. Sure, they may eat a healthy diet and exercise on a regular basis, but that’s just their normal lives. They do it because they enjoy it, not because they have to. This group has no significant daily health problems. They have a one-off transactional relationship with health and healthcare.

The second group is the young or old person who was recently diagnosed with a chronic illness that they will struggle with on a daily basis for the rest of their lives. Think the newly diagnosed asthmatic or diabetic. The definition of health to this user very much follows the grief process that occurs in our lives when we lose a loved one:

  • Denial and isolation
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

Just as the grief process takes about 6 months to play out, it takes about 6 months for people with new chronic illnesses to come to terms with it. After this 6 month period, it just becomes their version of normal, part of their routine, and their definition of health moves closer and closer to group number one— not having to think about it.

The third group are the chronically ill who are so chronically ill they must think about it almost every second of the day. This is the elderly woman in the last stages of heart failure or COPD. She’s carrying the oxygen tank and her life is severely limited. She typically already went through the grief process many years ago, and now, even though she’s super sick, it’s still her normal.

Alrighty, so how does social media fit into each group.

Group 1. Their definition of health is not having to think about it. They don’t have a problem nor do they need a tool, like social media, to solve a problem they don’t have. There is a very, very small subset of people who want to document their life according to their health— the quantified selfers. But this group is tiny because it’s just data geeks who are obsessed with data. They are people who truly believe data changes behavior. Data gets old after a while. After about a month, for those who are not obsessed, it becomes meaningless. That is, unless you have an obsession with data. And that is such a tiny fraction of people, there would be no point building a health social media platform for them. Good luck trying to build a viable business around that group.

Group 2. This is the “Hi I’m Bob, and I have diabetes” group. They have about six months where they absolutely need access to information and insight from others about what this new life means. They become obsessed with their health. Therefore, they have about six months of super intense learning, and they need to connect with good information and others who are in the same situation, hopefully via social media. Think PatientsLikeMe. But then the six month time period is up, they’ve figured it out, and their chronic illness they live with on a daily basis becomes their normal. At the end of 6 months, they go from “Hi, I’m Bob, and I have diabetes” to “Hi, I’m Bob and I’m just a normal guy.” These people need health social media for six months.  But good luck trying to build a viable business around that group.

Group 3. Their chronic illness has been normal for years and they’re just trying to find their moments of happiness in their lives— seeing the grandkids over the holidays for example. They have a big problem, but the social media for health tool doesn’t fix it. Granted, if they’re on Facebook, it’s super nice to get a message from their grandkids occasionally. But try building a viable business around this group. Facebook already did it.

Yes, health is influenced by social media. A diabetic can learn about a new lifehack from another diabetic on facebook. Yes, I, as a healthy person, can learn about Michael Pollan’s new book and start eating better. But I think it’s almost impossible to build a viable social media business that focuses on health. It’s the wrong tool for the problem at hand.

Jay Parkinson is a pediatrician and preventive medicine specialist and founder of The Future Well. He blogs at his self-titled site, Jay Parkinson + MD + MPH.

Submit a guest post and be heard on social media’s leading physician voice.

View 14 Comments >

Most Popular