Get Social

Consumers ‘Like’ Facebook, Blogs for Health Information

Facebook thumbsStaying healthy is a full-time job, and savvy consumers are using all of the tools available to them—including social media, says a Kansas State University researcher.

According to Linda Yarrow, assistant professor of human nutrition and registered/licensed dietitian, more people are turning to sites such as Facebook for health information, support and advice. Yarrow asserts that social media Web sites can help patients stay motivated and accountable when used correctly.

"The aspect of a support system is so important," Yarrow said. "That's why Weight Watchers works. Many people in the Weight Watchers program have probably heard these instructions for years, but it's being in a support group that works for them. That's what social media provides."

Who’s Going Online?

The majority of adults use the Internet, 74 percent to be exact. But what’s interesting, Yarrow said, is how many users are searching for health-related support and information:

  • 80 percent have searched for health information online.
  • 34 percent have read blogs or social media sites to learn more about a medical issue or find support.
  • Women are slightly more likely than men to use social media for health information.
  • Men are more comfortable using social media because they don't have to make an appointment.

"People are more willing today to share information online than ever before,” Yarrow said. “This is valuable; they're finding support."

Fitness, Nutrition Top Searches

Not surprising, most people look to the Web for weight loss information and support. Yarrow said this is because health insurance typically does not cover weight loss care and social media is generally free.

In fact, social media provides even faster support than traditional methods.

"On Facebook, a woman recently posted that she was ready to quit her walking program after one week," Yarrow said. "Within 10 minutes, she had been invited to other support groups, had an invitation for a walking buddy and an invitation to join a water aerobics class."

However, if this same woman had been involved in a program that physically met once a week, she might have had to wait six days for support, explained Yarrow.

Social media also makes consumers more accountable for their health, Yarrow said. When using sites such as MyFitnessPal to record health information such as daily food intake or number of steps to share with friends, people generally are more likely to meet goals because they have help monitoring their progress, she said.

"Slowly, this is going to help individuals take better care of their health," Yarrow said.

The Fine Print

Although the plethora of health information available at the click of a mouse is a great thing, online information is still no substitute for professional medical advice, especially for critical illnesses, warned Yarrow. Also misinformation is plentiful online.

"It's possible to follow the advice of someone on Facebook and end up in the hospital," she said. "But I've noticed that the users are savvy. They bring up research articles to each other, and even if (it’s) not always valid, at least they're pointing something out to each other. As professionals, we have to decide how to guide the information and help prevent inaccuracy, but we can't prevent it from coming in."