How hospitals can use online health forums to better engage underserved populations

By Fran Matso Lysiak 

A new study from the University of California, Riverside sheds light on how people use social media and online health forums. Researchers say hospitals can use the findings to help reach underserved communities and prevent the spread of misinformation.

The study, published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, looked at the demographics of users who participate in health-related Web-based social outlets to identify possible links to disparities in healthcare. They learned that men and women use social media and online health forums differently and for different purposes. For example, women use drug review websites and health forums to talk about specific conditions, while men prefer social sites such as Twitter to comment on health news and healthcare policy.

Researchers also found that blacks and medically underserved populations use the platforms less frequently than other groups.

"One application for these results is for public health officers who want to approach specific or underrepresented demographics," study coauthor Vagelis Hristidis, a professor computer science and engineering at the University of California, Riverside, said in a study announcement. "If you can assign health experts to take part in some online communities, they can help users avoid misinformation or dispense healthy lifestyle advice."

The research results can help healthcare providers customize educational campaigns for different groups, the study says. For example, white women must be informed much more on the possible spread of misinformation in health Web forums because they participate more often than men.

One way many hospitals now use social media and spread health information is to hire journalists to write stories about health trends and engage patients, according to a post at Hospitals & Health Networks Daily. In addition to raising health awareness in the community, hospitals rely on the platforms for branding, marketing and fundraising, FierceHealthcare previously reported. 

Another benefit to the use of social media: Research from the University of Arizona indicates that hospitals can use Twitter to predict how many emergency room visits they can expect on a given day. 

To learn more:
- read the study
- here's the study announcement
- check out the post at HHN Daily

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