1 In 10 Americans Turn To Social Media For Health Information, New Survey Shows
Amid culture wars over masking, Covid-19 treatments, and vaccine mandates, many Americans are at a loss for who to trust when it comes to healthcare information.
With Facebook under new fire for putting profits over people based on a whistleblower’s testimony before Congress, it’s a wonder that anyone trusts social media platforms at all, especially in a healthcare context.
But according to new data released this week from PatientsLikeMe, an online patient community, 11% of Americans surveyed said they turn to social media when looking for reliable health information. Nearly one in ten (9%) also said they use social media to evaluate new treatment options and 7% seek information about medication side effects from social media.
While these numbers are relatively small, they represent a substantially higher proportion of respondents than the share that says they trust social media for health information. That group was just 2% of respondents.
In other words, many more people use social media to find health information than trust social media to provide reliable health information.
Wariness of health information found on social media doesn’t necessarily translate into caution about other sources of health information online.
Many people’s first instinct is to turn to Google to find information about a health condition and treatments. Nearly one-quarter of consumers surveyed said they use search engines to evaluate new treatment options and 29% use search engines for medication side effect information.
But search engines may not be the best source of information either, according to Libby Baney, partner at Faegre Drinker Consulting and senior advisor to the Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies (ASOP Global).
“There is no real internet truth when it comes to search results,” Baney said.
A July survey conducted by ASOP Global showed that 72% of Americans believe that top search results in healthcare-related searches should be verified, but Baney says there’s no way to know if that’s happening or not. Search engine algorithms are opaque and dynamic, changing constantly.
“People are going on the internet and in some cases, blindly trusting what they find,” Baney said.
Consumers, she says, haven’t been trained to discern what’s trustworthy information or not based on search engine results. Many people simply assume that whatever websites show up at the top of Google’s results must be have been vetted.
“Consumers are really struggling to parse legitimacy from science versus science fiction,” Baney said. “We can’t expect patients to educate ourselves out of the algorithm.”
Americans may be using self-service channels for health information because many have no particular system for tracking and managing their health. Though 80% of survey respondents said they would be comfortable or very comfortable using a mobile app to manage their health and wellness, nearly half (43%) don’t use any such tool.
One bright spot in the PatientsLikeMe survey results is that doctors still come out on top for trustworthy health information, despite taking a credibility hit as the pandemic wears on. An August poll showed that 41% of Americans surveyed had lost confidence in their doctors during the pandemic.
The survey shows that 76% of respondents reportedly trust their doctors for health information. The largest group of respondents—43%—also said they turn to their doctors to evaluate new treatment options and 37% said they look to their doctor for reliable information about medication side effects.
These findings are consistent with other surveys, such as an Associated Press-NORC poll fielded in June that showed 70% of people surveyed trust their doctors and 79% trust nurses to do what’s right for them and their families all or most of the time.
Still, consumers spend a lot of time on their own trying to make sense of their own health. Baney suggests consumers need to think differently about healthcare information online than they do about other types of information.
“It gets more risky in healthcare and we haven’t done a [great] job distinguishing healthcare from other things,” Baney said. “Buying a prescription drug for myself is different than buying shows on the internet.”