Several media and academic sources have discussed the growing power of social media networking and internet data collection when it comes to marketing and political influence. However, these powerful tools may have potential public health utility in tracking important health behavior trends, and could publicize initiatives and influence health behavior as well.
Technology may provide easier access to care for those who live in areas with limited provider coverage (such as rural areas where mental health providers are scarce), via telehealth and teletherapy. Technology may also encourage those who would rather ask medical questions in a more anonymous or easy access setting, via virtual clinicians or other information access points. While some laugh at the idea of Google Medical School, there is still undeniable influence in online sources for health information. The key is to offer high quality, properly informed and vetted sources of information through easy-to-use, well-designed, reputable websites and interfaces.
Mobile and online applications are booming when it comes to adjunctive ways to monitor health behaviors and encourage adherence to treatment regimens. Apps that track daily medication dosing, provide reminders, track physical activity or anxiety symptoms are all available with many more on the way. Some apps offer on-the-go cognitive behavior therapy exercises and relaxation techniques. Several studies show that as an adjunct to in-person or standard-of-care treatment modalities, these apps can improve health outcomes in multiple areas, everything from cholesterol levels to addiction behaviors.
Tracking and pooling large sets of data available via popular online websites or apps may provide valuable insights into health behaviors. Some analyses looking at linguistic keywords have noticed previously unknown patterns in people more likely to have depression, or even suicidal thoughts. Others look at environmental or population factors via online data caches to see who tends to have higher rates of obesity or addiction and more. Certain trending online searches may indicate previously little-known side effects with a particular drug, or may indicate efficacy trends (good or bad) after interventions like vaccines during a flu season.
By harnessing the power of rapid and vast communication, public health initiatives on social media networks can reach wider or targeted audiences for particular risk factors or messaging, such as online groups that discuss depression or alcoholism, or particular age groups at risk for certain conditions. Sharing personal stories of illness more frankly than seen in previous mainstream media can reduce stigma and enhance people’s understanding of what really happens with these illnesses.
The possibilities are just beginning and innovative analyses of health data and promotion are growing in the academic, public health, and commercial sectors. There needs to be discussion on how to maintain scientific rigor and integrity when evaluating and regulating digital health interventions and their utility and safety in people. There also needs to be ongoing ethical negotiation of how to balance these initiatives with privacy and profit motives moving forward in this brave new world.