In the last couple of months, I’ve become a lot more optimistic regarding the use of social media for patient recruitment. To be clear, significant challenges remain and clinical researchers need to be educated on those challenges.
However, recently published data suggests we could be in the midst of a tipping point in how patients view and use social media. This tipping point would create a far more favorable environment for social media use in patient recruitment.
Patient Social Media Use: The Discouraging Data
A significant source of my social media hesitance stemmed from a 2011 Pew Internet Report titled “The Social Life of Health Information.” The report found that 62% of Internet users and 46% of adults use social media. So far, so good. These figures are encouraging.
What was not encouraging, however, was the use of social media for health information seeking. Here’s what social media users reported about their behavior:
Note that these numbers reflect the reported behavior of social media users, not consumers generally. If you account for the fact that 46% of adults use social media, as reported by Pew, the popularity of these activities among consumers is substantially lower than what the graphic displays.
The conclusion to be drawn from Pew’s survey is that only a very small minority of patients get health information from social media. And Pew is not alone in its findings. Similar data published around the same period support this conclusion.
Given such a reality, a related conclusion can also be drawn. The vast majority of patients are not interested in getting clinical trial information via social media. Other published data support this second conclusion as well.
But online trends change very rapidly. And fresh data suggests both conclusions need to be reevaluated.
Patient Social Media Use: A Possible Tipping Point
Check out this graphic from a recently published report by the Health Research Institute (HRI).
As you can see, health information seeking is becoming a much more popular social media activity. And unlike the Pew survey, HRI’s report is representative of consumers generally, rather than social media users specifically. The fact that HRI’s data represents all patients, not just the social media users, makes this increase particularly remarkable.
As the graphic on the right illustrates, patient use of social media for health information seeking is not just casual. It’s influencing healthcare decisions in a variety of important ways.
Notably, this shift has occurred very rapidly. Pew collected their data in 2010 and published the resulting report in May of 2011. HRI collected their data in 2011 and published the resulting report in April of 2012. So only about a year separates these two reports. Assuming both surveys accurately reflect consumer behavior at the time of data collection, this rapid shift is suggestive of a tipping point.
The Tipping Point Catalyst
In a previous post, I discussed the potential catalyst for a tipping point in patient views and use of social media. The post, titled Patient Recruitment, Social Media, & Decision Theory, described the climate needed for patients to become receptive to the use of social media for clinical trial information seeking. It’s a longer post, but if you want to understand how the clinical research industry can better harness social media, it’s worth reading.
In essence, my argument was that a mass of patients would have to believe that the value of using social media greatly outweighs the risk. This proposition seems simple and quite obvious.
However, it’s not so simple and obvious that the healthcare industry generally, or clinical researchers specifically, have always done a good job of mitigating risk and increasing value for patients. For the healthcare industry, that seems to have changed, though we still have a ways to go in clinical research.
The data collected by HRI seems to support the arguments I made in the decision theory post. The graphic below illustrates the percentage of respondents finding value in services offered by health providers, health insurers, and drug companies via social media.
Some of these services require that patients give up a degree of privacy, which is a form of risk. Yet patients have a consistently positive response to services that help them better manage their healthcare.
The reason is that the value provided by these services far outweighs the risk, thus encouraging greater patient use of social media for healthcare purposes. Because healthcare professionals have gotten better at providing value and mitigating risk, more patients see social media as an attractive option for health information.
These positive patient perceptions of social media are applicable to healthcare generally but not necessarily clinical research specifically. For the most part, clinical researchers have failed to provide the kind of social media value offered by the greater healthcare system. Now is the time to change that.
These positive patient perceptions have created a newly favorable environment for clinical researchers who truly understand how to engage patients via social media. And with that favorable environment comes new patient recruitment opportunity.
Caveats and Patient Recruitment Conclusions
I would not be writing this post if I felt either data source was unreliable. However, it’s important to note that differences in Pew and HRI’s findings could be the product of something other than a change in patient behavior. Alternate explanations include differences in survey methodology or framing of questions for example.
It will be interesting to see if future reports support HRI’s findings, providing additional confirmation that we are in the midst of a tipping point. Pew’s next report on online health information seeking should be published in 2013. If the findings are similar to that of HRI, we’ll have exactly the confirmation we need.
Also note that both reports surveyed U.S. respondents. Social media attitudes and behaviors will vary in other countries. If you intend to use social media for patient recruitment outside of the U.S., make sure that you understand how social media is used in the countries you are recruiting.
Remember that these encouraging findings are by no means a ticket to social media success. You need to have a very good understanding of the nuances of social media and how they relate to patient recruitment. You need to know how to engage patients. And you need to be able to recognize when social media is not the appropriate tool for your project.
Despite these caveats, I think HRI’s findings are cause for new optimism with regard to social media’s use in patient recruitment. If you’ve been interested in doing more with social media and looking for a signal that the time is right, I’d say this is your signal.
It’s still early enough that you have the opportunity to be innovative with social media in patient recruitment. But it’s not so early that the social media environment is not yet ready for that innovation. In fact, HRI’s findings indicate that the environment just got a whole lot more ready.
Now it’s your turn. What do you think? Put your thoughts below in the comments.